Sansone says he strongly opposes District Court, prefers keeping town justice system in place

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 2 June 2024 at 2:07 pm

Howard wants people to decide issue in referendum

Photos by Tom Rivers: John Sansone, a candidate for Orleans County district attorney, passes out candy during a parade in Carlton on Saturday.

John Sansone, an assistant district attorney, is breaking from DA Joe Cardone in a high-profile issue in Orleans County.

Cardone has been pushing in recent years for a district court that would serve multiple towns. Cardone would like to see a county-wide district court that would handle most of the cases at the town court level.

“The current district attorney is a person I respect very much,” Sansone said. “I know that we disagree on this issue. We have different points of view based upon our sincere beliefs. I am happy the will of voters will decide this issue.”

Cardone said state aid should cover most of the cost of a district court. The county provides the facility and the state is expected to cover the salaries for judges, clerks and security.  Cardone said having the cases be handled by a full-time court would move matters more expeditiously through the courts system. He said it would be a savings for the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender and law enforcement by having a centralized court, rather than a patchwork of 10 town courts.

But Sansone sees a lot of negatives with the proposal.

“In addition to the potential financial burden on taxpayers, the creation of a district court eliminates local town oversight of its residents to their detriment,” Sansone said in a news release. “The current system of criminal justice ensures the vast majority of cases begin in a person’s residential locality.”

Sansone faces a June 25 Republican primary against Susan Howard for Orleans County district attorney. Cardone isn’t seeking re-election after 32 years as the county’s top prosecutor.

Sansone joins a chorus of opposition to the district court, which includes the Orleans County Magistrates Association and some of the town boards. The local town justices and many of the board members say the current system is closer to the people, operates at a low cost and the state funding in uncertain, and could ultimately lead to a higher local expense.

“Our current court system has some very important elements to safeguard fairness and one of them is that all issues are local in their nature,” Sansone said. “Our county is not like many in our state. We are a county of many differences based on where you live and what you do and I believe that for the justice system to work best, knowing, recognizing and protecting that localness is very important. Town courts do that, and I believe the structure should remain the same to the benefit of all.”

Howard was one of 13 on the District Court Committee. Three of the members – Albion Town Justice Joe Fuller, Carlton Town Justice Kevin Hurley and former Barre Town Justice Richard Decarlo – cast votes dissenting from the recommendations of the committee. Dean Puleo, a layer who works with village and town courts for the 8th Judicial District, abstained from an opinion on the report, and so did Sheriff Chris Bourke.

Howard is listed as accepting the report recommendations. Others who cast affirmative votes include DA Joe Cardone, Public Defender Joanne Best, Legislature Chairwoman Lynne Johnson, Legislator Skip Draper, Legislator John Fitzak, Susan Howard, former Gaines Town Justice Bruce Schmidt, and County Chief Administrative Officer Jack Welch.

Click here to see the report.

Susan Howard passes out candy during Carlton’s parade.

Howard said she ultimately wants to have the issue go to a public vote where the community decides the issue.

“I don’t oppose it, but I’m not pushing for it either,” she said.

Howard believes a district court will eventually be mandated by the state and required for the county.

“It’s coming,” she said. “We know it will be shoved down our throat.”

She said the county could get ahead of a state mandate and try to implement a district court, or it could wait until there is a state decree in the future.

“I’m leaving it up to the people to decide,” she said. “I will implement whatever they decide.”

Howard, the first assistant DA, said she wanted to be an active member on the District Court Committee.

“I try to keep myself educated and informed because I feel that’s my job,” she said.

There will be a second public hearing this Tuesday at 7 p.m. on the district court. The hearing is in the second-floor legislative chambers of the Orleans County Office Building at 14016 Route 31 West, Albion.

Sansone says the county report doesn’t take the full costs of a new court into account.

“I know that the idea of a district court has been described as a cost saving measure, however, I have not seen studies of substance to substantiate that contention,” he said. “Many financial aspects related to the creation of district court are speculative and fail to account for costs such as improving the current condition of buildings to required state standards for courtrooms and costs related to transporting defendants from the jail for court appearances, to name a few.”

Sansone said the state funding isn’t guaranteed. He said there is no evidence the state will force counties to implement district courts.

“Quite to the contrary, only two downstate counties have created district courts in the 1970s,” he said. “None of the remaining 60 counties have implemented a plan for a district court in over 40 years.”

If the state mandates a district court in the future, Sansone said the county should respond then.

“At that time, issues will be clearer, such as what the state will require for courtrooms, staffing, salaries, etc., and most important, who will be paying for what,” Sansone said. “In my opinion, there is absolutely no benefit to create something of this magnitude now only to have to change to satisfy New York State later on. Proceeding under that reasoning doesn’t make sense.”