DA, public defender urge municipalities to consider district courts in Orleans County

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 February 2022 at 11:47 am

‘The huge benefit is justice would be administered more evenly. Things are not on an even playing field from town to town – they just aren’t.’ – Public Defender Joanne Best

CARLTON – Orleans County District Attorney Joe Cardone has been talking for at least a couple years about a district court in Orleans. That would include at least two towns with one judge.

Joe Cardone

Cardone said it may make the most sense to have three district courts – one on the east side for Murray, Clarendon and Kendall; the central towns of Barre, Albion, Gaines and Carlton; and the west end with Shelby, Ridgeway and Yates.

That would result in a more unified approach to justice in the county, where Cardone and Public Defender Joanne Best said there is currently a lack of consistency among the 10 town courts, as well as the CAP Court where there are arraignments twice a day in the County Jail with town justices serving in the CAP on a rotational basis.

Cardone and Best both spoke about the issue last week during the monthly meeting of the Orleans County Association of Municipalities at the Black North Inn. They want to keep having a discussion about the issue.

Cardone has tried before, requesting information from the towns on how much they spend annually for their justice courts, with salary and benefits for judges and court clerks, as well as other costs – security utilities and equipment. But Cardone said he didn’t get much response from that request.

There are currently 13 town justices in the county. Cardone, who has been district attorney for about 30 years, said that is down from about 25 local justices when he started. The villages of Albion, Medina and Lyndonville have all ended their courts with those caseloads assumed by the towns in those villages.

Cardone and Best see more room for streamlining court functions, and offering more consistency and professionalism. With a district court one judge would serve a court that covered at least two towns.

Joanne Best

“The huge benefit is justice would be administered more evenly,” Best told the group of town, village and county officials. “Things are not on an even playing field from town to town – they just aren’t.”

Cardone said the Orleans County Magistrates Association, which represents the 13 towns justices, don’t want to make the change to district courts with fewer judges.

He said the change would keep the fine money with the local municipalities and would also bring resources from the state Office of Court Administration.

Richard Moy, the Clarendon town supervisor, said he discussed a district court with the Clarendon Town Board and the group wasn’t interested in pursuing it. They see less local control, and a court run by lawyers, including a judge who would likely be an attorney.

Moy said attorneys already have too many key positions in the government.

“Look at our country, who are the senators and congressmen? They’re lawyers,” Moy said. “People see lawyers taking over the country.”

Cardone and Best said it would be beneficial to people in court to have a judge with years of background in the law.

Moy acknowledged there is varying degrees of competence among town justices, but he said that would continue if there was a switch to district courts with lawyers behind the bench.

“Not all lawyers are good judges,” he said.

Cardone and Best said they want the local government leaders to discuss the issue and look at how it could work in Orleans County – before there is a directive from the state.

“Regionalism is coming to our communities, one way or the other,” Best said. “We need to try to get ahead of the curve because the state could mandate it. Let’s develop something for our county rather than being told what to do.”

The local officials asked Cardone to put together cost estimates with a district court, and how it could save or cost more for towns with their current court budgets.

Cardone said it will depend on how many towns join in a district court. Right now he said the courts aren’t “money-makers” for the towns, and they shouldn’t look at a district court, even with less personnel, as a court that could be run cheaper.

Cardone said the focus should be on dispensing justice in a consistent and fair way across the county.

“I see things moving in this direction where things are done more professionally than they are now,” Cardone said.

It’s not something that will happen “overnight,” Cardone said. He said it could take several years to implement the district courts. The change can’t happen until the terms expire for elected town judges. Some towns last November elected judges to new four-year terms.

County Legislator Bill Eick of Shelby urged the local leaders to be open to discussing the issue.

“It’s a change factor and no one wants change,” Eick said. “We need to act before it’s shoved down our throats.”