EDITORIAL: What’s justice in Philmont?

ELECTING LOCAL JUDGES is a longstanding tradition in this state. In theory a judge who lives in a community will know best how to apply the law in local cases. But no matter how good the theory, there’s always someplace like Philmont, where reality grabs theory by the feet and shakes it upside down.

The Philmont Village Board, Police Department and some village residents are so angry with the elected village justice that last week a trustee presented the board with a petition calling for the judge, Russ Immarigeon, to resign. That’s a surprising turnaround considering that Judge Immarigeon was swept into office last March with no organized opposition. He won with 93 votes, defeating two write-in candidates, one of whom got 7 votes, the other 5. The judge, who’s also a Hillsdale town justice, doesn’t live in Philmont. That seems not to have been a problem when he was running for office, but since then the Village Board has adopted a local law requiring future justices to be village residents. If Judge Immarigeon had not offered to put his name in nomination for the ballot, would Philmont have elected a judge with seven votes?

At a recent Village Board meeting officials angry with the judge recounted decisions of his they believe were not in the best interests of the village. The most provocative ones involved a Philmont a couple charged with felony drug offenses. Multiple police agencies, including the county Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office conducted a six-month investigation that led to the arrests in late November. Police allegedly found cocaine as well as marijuana; among the charges were intent to sell controlled substances and handling these substances in the presence of a child.

The defendants were brought before Judge Immarigeon for arraignment and the judge’s decision on how much bail they would have to post before being released.
The District Attorney’s Office recommended that the judge order both defendants held without bail. But Judge Immarigeon ruled that the two could leave the court on their own recognizance–no bail required.

Imagine you’re a Philmont resident. Two people accused of serious crimes by expert police and experienced prosecutors have just walked out of court free. What if they elude the law? What if they return to the neighborhood and sell drugs, as police alleged they intended? How could any judge let that happen?

The outrage and frustration of Philmont officials and concerned residents is understandable. It’s also misdirected. The better question is how could Judge Immarigeon not act as he did?

In this state the reason for bail is to assure that defendants will appear in court. If the judge had evidence they were likely to disappear, then he could have sent them to jail to await trial. But a judge may not use bail as punishment. Defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Judge Immarigeon could have set bail so high the defendants couldn’t have paid it. But that would confirm what cynics say about the legal system: rich people go free, the rest wait in jail. Maybe the rich  call that justice, but not the rest of us. And it’s the rest of us who pay an unfair share of the cost to keep too many people needlessly locked up while awaiting trial.

We all should worry that releasing accused criminals with or without bail risks exposing the community to dangerous people. That’s a problem embedded in state law. Last year the chief justice of the state’s highest court called for reforms that would allow judges to consider evidence that indicates a defendant might be a threat as part of a bail hearing. That approach is used in other states and it should be adopted here too. But as the law stands now, Judge Immarigeon could not have applied that type of common sense test to this case or any other.

The public can’t remove its elected judge. It can’t take away his salary. He’s a man of integrity and his position and his rulings, right or wrong, and state laws are intended to protect judges from the passions of the moment.

As much as Philmont residents disapprove of Judge Immarigeon’s rulings, it’s important for officials and voters to keep in mind that a judge who follows the law is no threat to our form of democratic self rule. The real danger comes from judges who take the law into their own hands and are swayed by those who speak the loudest.

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