Winner Testifies Before State Commission Examining Local Justice Court Reform

George Winner

June 26, 2007

Ithaca, N.Y.-- State Senator George H. Winner, Jr. (R-C, Elmira), chairman of the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources, testified today at a public hearing at the Old Tompkins County Courthouse on several initiatives that he’s advocating to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of town and village justice courts.

Today’s hearing was sponsored by the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts. It was the second of several public hearings the Commission is conducting statewide to receive public input on a court reform action plan released late last year by State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye.

"The action plan concludes that the abolition of the justice court system does not serve the interests of the people of the state. I agree and believe we should take the steps required to improve the justice court system," Winner testified. "I am sure town and village officials and members of the public appreciate and support your efforts as well."

Winner noted that justice courts across New York State consider nearly 3 million cases annually and, last year alone, collected nearly $212 million in fees and fines. While a New York Times series earlier this year was highly critical of the state’s system of justice courts, Winner defended the system as a whole for "providing a fair and accessible system of justice."

In his testimony Winner said, "There has been criticism of the conduct of a relatively few local judges, yet the record shows an overwhelming number of justices carry out their duties in a manner which brings great credit to the people of this state for their continued support of justice courts."

The purpose of Winner’s testimony was to highlight several initiatives developed by the Rural Resources Commission to address some of the challenges facing the local courts.

Last week, for example, the New York State Senate unanimously approved legislation (S.3228) Winner sponsors aimed at enhancing the operation of local justice courts by allowing two or more adjacent towns to elect a single justice to preside over their town courts. Current state law allows for the combining of town justice courts, but Winner said that may not be convenient if it forces residents or law enforcement officers to travel a greater distance to a new, combined town court.

This measure, along with several other pieces of legislation, was the product of discussions earlier this year between the Rural Resources Commission and the state Office of Court Administration on ways to assist justice courts. Additional legislation highlighted by Winner in his testimony today included:

-- S.4246, which has been given final legislative approval, to increase the maximum grant awards provided to local justice courts through the Justice Court Assistance Fund from $20,000 to $30,000. The legislation now goes to Governor Eliot Spitzer to be signed into law;

-- S.4222 to provide training and ongoing education for town and village justices and non-judicial personnel; and

-- S.4257 to authorize temporary assignments in justice courts.