Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Assembly Line Justice

Our court system is so busy that the process has become assembly line justice. There are many reasons for this. The court system has one view.

The New York State Bar Association had a panel discussion today on the Justice Court system, which is composed of town and village courts. There has been an ongoing look at the system, propelled in part by a series of articles in the New York Times. I mentioned that series of articles in a post on my Stop Wasting Money blog sometime ago.

There were a couple of main ideas in today's discussion. One theme dealt with steps that are being taken to improve the justice courts, mainly focused on additional training for judges and staff, and also providing them with modern technology. The other theme was about the system itself, and particularly one key feature - the role of non-lawyer judges.

A number of lawyers (and others) think that it's wrong, and even unconstitutional, to have non-lawyer judges. I don't buy the constitutional argument for a second. The Justice Court system was in place when the Constitution was written, and I'm pretty sure there were some New York lawyers involved in the process. I understand the attraction some have to the notion that non-lawyers lack the necessary qualifications to be judges, but I just don't agree. At least one person today noted that most of the non-lawyer judges are qualified to be President. Of course, these days saying you're as qualified as the President is not a terribly strong argument, but I digress.

One lawyer suggested that we should change to a District Court system, and that this would somehow make the process better. I disagree.

That whole discussion misses the larger problem - the volume of cases. The volume is so large that the courts have become the definition of assembly line justice. It really is an assembly line. The police officer prepares the initial papers and files them with the clerk. The clerk gives the papers to the prosecutor who reviews them and discusses the case with the lawyer or the pro-se defendant (though some prosecutors will not discuss a case with a pro-se defendant). The papers then go back to the clerk, who then hands them to the judge. The judge calls the case. There's a brief discussion at the bench. Then the papers go back to the clerk, who then processes the result (fine notice, schedule next date, etc.).

Think about this: If a court has 100 cases on for a particular session (a typical number for courts like Colonie, Guilderland, Albany, etc), and each case takes 15 minutes, that would take 25 hours. That's not going to work. If each case takes only 5 minutes, it still takes 8 hours, so that's still not going to work. Most courts end up at about 1-2 minutes per case. That's assembly line justice.

One of the nice things about the current system is that there are some courts where the docket is not so busy, and you actually have time to have a meaningful discussion about the case, about why the client is really a good person, etc. You get this kind of attention in places like Altamont Village Court, and even in New Scotland Town Court (which is somewhat busier than Altamont). A district court approach (where all of the minor cases in Albany County, for example, would be handled in one court) would be far more impersonal. It would further dehumanize the assembly line.

But the real answer to the problem is to have fewer cases. One comment I heard today was that the problem is how much crime there is. But that's phony. The problem is how much we've defined to be crimes, and how aggressively we enforce certain of these laws. Most countries seem to take a pretty lax attitude about speeding. I remember driving 100 mph in France (in a French car - see I do have guts) with German cars whizzing past us. Speeding tickets are a huge part of the volume in town, village and city courts.

DWI laws have also gotten tougher and tougher. Not too long ago, someone who blew a 0.05 or 0.06 would be let go by the police. Not anymore. And the DWI penalties have gotten so severe that it almost always makes sense to insist on a suppression hearing. More and more lawyers are thinking that way and it's going to gum up the system.

Then there's the drug war, but I've beaten that horse so many times they're going to put me in a special animal violence court.
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