County authorizes study of district court; issue could go to public referendum in November

Photos by Tom Rivers: Some of the committee members looking into the feasibility of a district court in Orleans County include Public Defender Joanne Best, Sheriff Chris Bourke, District Attorney Joe Cardone, and Assistant DA Susan Howard.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 12 April 2023 at 11:43 am

ALBION – The Orleans County Legislature has authorized forming a committee to look at the potential implementation of a district court in the county, with the issue possibly going to a public vote in November.

The Legislature cited increasing complexities and frequent changes in state laws with the criminal justice system. Forming a consolidated district court could result in a more effective local court system, legislators said in authorizing the formation of a committee.

The committee includes District Attorney Joe Cardone, Sheriff Chris Bourke, Public Defender Joanne Best, Albion Town Justice Joe Fuller (representing the Orleans County Magistrates Association), Assistant DA Susan Howard, County Chief Administrative Officer Jack Welch, former Gaines Town Justice and Assistant DA Bruce Schmidt and county legislators John Fitzak and Skip Draper.

The committee expects to hold public hearings on the issue to outline how a district court could look in the county. The hearings will also be a chance for residents to provide feedback. Cardone expects a hearing in the eastern, central and western sides of the county.

“I’m proud of Orleans County with the open mindedness of the County Legislature and the department heads,” Cardone said on Thursday.

He was interviewed at the Public Safety Building with Sheriff Bourke, Public Defender Joanne Best and Susan Howard, the assistant DA.

Bourke said he isn’t necessarily pushing for the district court but wants the information fleshed out with residents having an opportunity to hear about the proposal and vote on it.

‘It’s a different world that we’re living in with respect to the criminal justice system. It’s very complex and difficult. We want to give the people in the community some options.’ – District Attorney Joe Cardone

Several of the town justices have already urged their town boards to oppose a district court saying it takes away local control and reduces the influence of the town justices who are closer to the people.

“It would be a very poor business decision and would defy common sense,” Murray Town Justice Ted Spada said in a May town meeting about a district court.

He said the operational and staffing costs are much higher with a district court.

The DA has been urging the county in recent years to look at a district court. He favors one district court for the county to handle many of the cases currently in front of the town justices. Those judges would still remain if there is a district court. They could still do marriages, code violations, some vehicle and traffic cases, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims and some criminal cases.

“The town justices we have the upmost respect for them and the work that they do,” Cardone said. “But we’re looking at the direction of the complexity of criminal justice in the State of New York.”

The top of the columns at the Orleans County Courthouse are shown last week in Albion. A district court would be different than the local town courts and also the County Court level.

The committee will look at how the workload among the town justices and a district could be divvied up between town courts and district court. The committee also needs to look at a location for the court that would meet all the standards sets by the office of Court Administration.

Among the 10 town courts, only the Murray facility meets the OCA standards. Many of the sites are lacking in adequate space, attorney-client rooms, security, sound and other standards.

Joanne Best, the public defender, said judges handle cases differently in the towns. She sees the benefit of a district court as fairness with cases being handled uniformly in the county.

She also said there is a shortage of attorneys in the county for the public defender and district attorney’s office. Having cases in one location, rather than 10, would make it much easier for the public defender and DA’s office to have attorneys for the proceedings, she said.

“This is about trying to make better use of the system,” she said. “Fewer attorneys would be needed. We would staff one court instead of 10.”

Orleans County has already made strides to a more streamlined court system, Cardone said. When he started as DA about three decades ago, there were 24 local justices with two each at the 10 towns, while Albion and Medina each had two village justices.

Albion and Medina have since abolished their village courts, and now the 10 towns only have one judge, except for Murray which has two but will go to one following Gary Passarell’s retirement.

Ridgeway and Shelby also share a courts facility at the Shelby Town Hall. There are also agreements in the western end – Shelby, Ridgeway and Yates – for the judges to have jurisdiction in all three towns.

“What we’ve done is unprecedented in the State of New York,” Cardone said.

The county the past three years also has been operating a CAP Court (centralized arraignment parts) with arraignments in the county jail at 8:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. This is every day including weekdays, weekends and holidays.

Besides arraignments, the CAP Court handles driver’s license suspensions, orders of protection and outstanding warrants.  The town justices rotate serving in the role for CAP Court. The Sheriff’s Department has been providing security personnel for those proceedings.

Cardone said the CAP Court has been a success, showing the benefits of a centralized system with one spot in the county for arraignments. People have shown they can make it to Albion for the appearances.

Cardone believes the county has been at the forefront for how to run more efficient town courts, and continue to lead the way for the state with the establishment of a district court in a small county.

He looks forward to discussing the possibilities with the community.

“It’s a different world that we’re living in with respect to the criminal justice system,” Cardone said. “It’s very complex and difficult. We want to give the people in the community some options.”