District Court won’t be on ballot in November

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 25 June 2024 at 6:12 pm

County will take lead from state on whether the issue moves forward

Photo by Tom Rivers: The Orleans County Courthouse is shown on a foggy evening on Jan. 27, 2024 in Albion.

ALBION – Orleans County voters won’t get a chance to vote this November on whether the county should create a district court.

The County Legislature wanted to put the issue to a public referendum in November, but during two recent public hearings the Legislature has been urged against moving forward with a vote, saying there are too many uncertainties with a district court, especially whether the state would cover the salaries of judges, clerks and security.

“We received a lot of feedback and some really good questions that gave us a lot to ponder,” said Lynne Johnson, County Legislature chairwoman.

She announced during this afternoon’s Legislature meeting that the district court issue won’t be on the ballot in November. But she said it isn’t a dead issue.

The Orleans County Magistrates Association, a group representing town justices in the 10 towns, has been adamantly opposed to a district court, saying the town courts are serving the local citizens just fine and a district court may not function as well and could cost much more.

The county also received a letter on May 30 from James P. Murphy, Justice of the Supreme Court and deputy chief administrative judge for courts outside New York City.

Murphy said the county’s push to establish a district court is partly due to anticipated funding from the state. The county sees how the state is funding district courts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. However, Murphy said those courts were established more than 60 years ago “under very unique circumstances.”

Murphy advised the county officials he is surprised no one from Orleans reached out to the Unified Court System for input on a complex issue.

The county faces “serious constitutional issues” with the district court proposal, he said in his letter. He said the county’s local law establishing the district court is unconstitutional because it first needs permission from the State Legislature to allow the county to consider a district court.

There have been no bills introduced in the Assembly or Senate of the State Legislature, which enable the county to consider a district court, Murphy said.

The county needs the state legislation first, before it can proceed to a referendum.

In his letter, Murphy said the state assumes the expenses of district court salaries for judges , clerks, officers and other expenses, except for providing the courts facility. That would fall on the local government – the county.

“There are several other provisions of your proposed Local Law that are contrary to New York State law, including but not limited to establishing residency of staff, defining who designates the number of judges and determines their salaries,” Murphy said. “I respectfully submit that the passage of your proposed Local Law is unconstitutional and will not achieve the results that you are hoping to accomplish.”

Johnson said the District Court Committee will likely reconvene in the fall, and will work to draft a resolution to submit to the State Legislature requesting legislation to determine the merits of a district court in Orleans County and the process to accomplish that.

“While I think the concept holds tremendous potential for Orleans County, it has become clear we need the state to be fully onboard and have answers to questions like funding the district court, before we can go any further,” Johnson said.