I recently unearthed a story I reported for Spy magazine in November 1990 about attending Judges’ School in Buffalo. Under present circumstances, it seems hilariously yet terrifyingly germaine. If you’re wondering why some Americans aren’t bothered by a President with no experience, read on..
“If Ivana Trump can run a hotel and Kirk Douglas can write novels, I thought, why can’t I become a judge?
So I called the New York State Office of Court Administration to ask. Did I need a law degree or typing skills? Just what did I need? To be 21-years-old; that’s it. If I could find myself a nice New York town to live in – Jamestown, say, or Bronxville, or wherever – then all I had to do was get elected to the bench.
Becoming a town judge would mean I could skip law school and bar exams and defending people I didn’t like, because the state constitution doesn’t call for a law degree at the town or village level. Of the 2,400 judges holding court in New York State’s smaller communities, only 20 percent have law degrees. Which is not to say that just anyone can pound a gavel – nearly 90 percent of the current judges have a tenth-grade education or better.
Prudently, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) requires that judges elected without law degrees attend a six-day “Basic Course” in criminal and civil law, forms processing and deportment. The course finishes up with a 50-question true or false exam, for which the passing grade is 70 percent. Then, provided the judges know at least 70 percent of what they are supposed to know (and are over 21), they are empowered to throw you in jail.
There are some limits, of course. Town and village judges can issue orders of protection against belligerent spouses – no problem. But, they cannot impose fines exceeding $2,000 or pass sentences of more than one year. They can issue arrest warrants for, say, rapists, but they can’t sentence them, because all felons get bumped up to a superior court. Also, they have to have a reason. A judge can’t go around threatening to “railroad” people if they “ever set foot” in his court. After expressing this intention to strangers in his local bar, one judge was removed from the bench a few years back, according to Ed Borelli, an official with the OCA.
Many of the subtler rules of judging are simply made up by an OCA advisory committee upon written request from judges who were wondering. For instance, Borelli advises, “You should not be holding your arraignments in driveways or in barns.”
One of the Basic Courses is taught in Buffalo, in the law office of Town Justice Eugene Salisbury. Salisbury is a champion of the no-law-degree-needed faction within New York’s judiciary, which periodically expresses ambivalence about the matter. Salisbury himself has a law degree, but what is most remarkable about him, at least if you’re staring at him for several hours, is what he has done with his hair. Two thick, greased locks have been combed forward from either side of the part and curled into a large O atop his forehead, like the scope on a rifle.
Judge Salisbury is a good teacher because he speaks plainly and distinctly, force-feeding hundreds of years’ worth of precedent down the throats of the men and women – heavy equipment operators, mail couriers, state troopers and refrigerator repairmen – who would be judges. His ten pupils grapple like heroes, yellow highlighting markers in hand, as Salisbury swings them through misdemeanours, felonies, arraignments, defendants’ rights, who gets to set bail (“Not the D.A. – I don’t know how many irate defense attorneys have phoned me up…”) and where to buy an affordable robe.
“Town and village judges are at the base of the entire pyramid of the criminal justice system,” Judge Salisbury tells his class. “All we need is a few bad apples, and we’re all in trouble.”
The numbers go up and down, but on average about 120 judges runinto problems with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct every year. Borelli, who has flown up from New York City for a section on judicial ethics, brings an armload of cautionary tales. Until his appearance, there has been much fretting over to whom, exactly, one could go with a question. “Hmmm, that’s a tough one to call,” Salisbury keeps saying, never coming right out and admitting that law is a system of complex precedents that might, you know, call, maybe, for legal training. It is suggested that the county judge would be okay, until Borelli deflates this notion. “You can’t call ‘em up! They might be hearing your case on appeal!” Eyes shift around the room. Now the thought of having to ask smarty-pants lawyers haunts everyone with the specter of public humiliation.
Another problem, Borelli explains, concerns getting tangled up in public associations that might seem all fine and well if you’re not a judge. The way New York State words it, the judiciary “cannot lend the prestige and influence of the office to advance personal or political causes.” For instance, an Erie County judge was disciplined in 1987 for deciding the Sexiest Bald Man in Buffalo contest and kissing the winner on the head.
Borelli’s example prompts a round of worried questioning from the judges-to-be. “How about calling bingo?” asks a fellow. “Can’t do it,” says Borelli. A timid man from Warsaw County asks about hot-dog cookouts to raise money for the fire department. “Selling hot dogs is okay,” says Borelli, “but not to fundraise.”
“That’s splittin’ hairs,” grumbles the Warsaw judge, who is upset by this snag. “We don’t have that big a fire department.”
Learning to tell the forest from the trees, ethics-wise, causes some consternation in the class, but an even more difficult section is the three-hour tutorial on how to fill out forms. There are so many forms, and they are so dull: traffic tickets, bail sheets, monthly court ledgers, all filled with persnickety fine print. Judges must learn about these in detail because many of them don’t have clerks, and if they are not administratively up to snuff, they could get into trouble. “How in the hell am I going to keep all this straight?” mutters a retired airline pilot who has taken up judging to keep “my head from going rusty.”
“Who here uses docket forms?” asks Cybil Kennedy, a court clerk in Grand Island who has popped in to the conduct the form session. “Well, I use ordinary envelopes,” says a farmer. “Do you index the envelopes separately?” prods Cybil. There’s a moment of confusion. “You have to keep a separate index,” she explains, “and you have to have some sort of file for each case. You can’t just throw them all in a box.”
A former sheriff from Chautauqua County, dressed in a purple turtleneck beneath a pastel-plaid dress shirt, has been on the bench in his town of 25,000 for a few months already, so he provides tips. “What I do – this is my own personal thing,” he says, “is I round fines off, so I don’t have to make change.” Why not be innovative when you’re winging it anyway? “Like they said in the service,” one judge reminds the others, “it ain’t against the rules until you get caught.”
By the end of the course, the judges seem more anxious than confident, more bewildered than eager. Having a smoke in the law-office kitchen before the exam, some complain. “They give you an example of some law, and then there’s always an exception!” says a math teacher. Precedent, schmecedent shrugs the refrigerator repairman. So how will he know how to rule? “Well, because of evidence,” he figures. “You know, who’s got proof.” The math teacher rolls his eyes. Then everyone files into class for the test.