Senator Sean Ryan on Justice Courts Reform Bill S.139C


So there's a quirk in our justice system in New York State that's created a two-tiered justice system.

Everybody's under this perception that if you're a judge, well, of course you're a lawyer. But that's really not true.

In OCA Courts, Office of Court Administration, those judges are lawyers. There's 1,200 other courts in New York State through the town court justice system. Courts have broad jurisdiction -- traffic, felony arraignment, small claims, misdemeanors. But they're not lawyers.

And anyone who's a lawyer in the room would remember Gideon v. Wainwright, where the Supreme Court said, in criminal proceedings, the potential deprivation of liberty is so serious that you have to have a lawyer to be represented. But I don't know if they ever paused to think that some of the people that the lawyer will be arguing in front of aren't even lawyers themselves.

So this bill would take the hundred busiest courts in New York state under the town court system and make it so those are lawyers. Pretty simple fix.

I often hear in response to this, “Well, some of those areas don't have lawyers living in that jurisdiction.” So we intentionally crafted it for only the 100 busiest courts. And if you look at a map of where those courts are, the busiest courts, and you overlay that with maps of the localities with the highest concentration of attorneys, you would think you're looking at the same map.  So we're going to easily be able to put attorneys in every one of those spots. 

New York is one of the only few states in the union that allows non-attorney judges to sentence people to jail. So it's a common-sense solution to a problem that -- People put this system in place back in the early 1700s. It might have made sense then. It didn't make sense now.

So we've talked to people around the state about this. We considered all the potential downsides. We've taken steps to alleviate those concerns. And it's about time that in New York State, we don't have a two-tiered justice system. We have a one-tiered justice system, where every defendant not only has a right to counsel, but has a right to appear in front of a judge who is also a counsel. 

I proudly vote aye.