YEARS AGO AND far from here, a neighbor showed up one night at our door in tears. She said she’d been attacked by her companion. He was armed, she said, and she feared he would pursue her and her young daughter. She called the police and they arrested the guy.
I heard later that what upset her abuser was not that the police came for him but that they didn’t heed his demand to go before a particular town justice in our town. Instead, troopers brought him to court in a neighboring community to be arraigned before a complete stranger, someone the abuser had never done business with. The abuser was incensed: in his view, he had been denied his “rights” to special treatment.
For all I know, it was the local justice who declined to handle the case, acting appropriately to avoid any conflict of interest. But that incident left me wary about exactly what the expectations are when judges are elected as part of the regular political process. The recent appointment of a new justice in the Town of Kinderhook renewed those old concerns.
In Kinderhook, a longtime justice resigned this summer, and the Town Board had a choice; it could either appoint someone to fill the position until the general election in November or accept the offer of the state appoint a justice to fill in until a new judge is elected. The board chose to appoint someone.
At first glance that makes sense. The board has the authority to take the action and it was likely to happen quickly, with three Republicans on the board and one Democrat. Town Supervisor Pat Grattan, a lawyer, chose not to participate because he saw the potential for conflicts of interest.
The process of selecting a justice is inherently political under the state constitution and laws. Occasionally there is a non-political option, as there was in this case. The board didn’t take that route. As politicians, the members of the board understand that an incumbent – even an appointee — has a much better chance of winning an election than a challenger. So it must have crossed the minds of the GOP board members that picking somebody now who would run for the post in November would give their party a good chance to keep that seat.
But there was a problem with that approach. The state offered to pay for an interim justice out of state funds until a new justice is elected. That would have saved the town over $6,250 between now and the end of the year. Apparently that didn’t sound like a lot of money to some of the board members. After all it’s a drop in the bucket in the overall annual town budget of $2.3 million.
Looked at another way, it’s about one-quarter of the amount the town budgeted for court salaries in 2010, according to the county budget comparison report issued last year. I wonder if taxpayers feel the same way about ignoring a windfall of six thousand bucks. That’s money that wouldn’t have come their pockets and it’s gone just because one party wants an advantage in the next election.
By choosing to appoint somebody now instead of waiting for the election, the board limited the field of applicants to lawyers or laypeople already trained by the state to serve as justices. Practicing lawyers automatically qualify to sit on the local bench. Non-lawyers have to attend the state school for new justices, and the state doesn’t hold one of those again until after the election. Fortunately, the town received applications from three highly qualified attorneys.
The board chose a lawyer who was an assistant district attorney, and there’s every reason to believe he will be an excellent justice. But unlike the two other candidates, he cannot hear as many as 20 cases already pending before the Town Court. That’s because as an ADA he participated in some way in those 20 cases and cannot now sit in judgment on them. Are there any costs associated with this new wrinkle? Where will the money come from if there are?
The issue here is not the justice but what kind of message the board signaled about the justice system by its handling of this issue. As politicians they chose to treat the appointment process of a town justice as a political plumb. They had the right to do that, but it was the wrong thing to do.