Cortlandville officials defend proposal to ax town justice position

(Photo via Unsplash).

The Cortlandville town board recently released their reasoning behind eliminating one of two town justice positions, a proposal that will be on the ballot this November. 

Some residents and court employees are questioning whether the rationale is sound.

Town supervisor Tom Williams wrote in the newsletter explaining the rationale behind the move that the state changed the arraignment process to a Central Arraignment Process (CAP), allowing the county to process operations at the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office during off-hours arraignment. It also allowed a rotation of judges to handle these matters. 

Williams claims this move cut off-hour arraignments almost down to none.

“Beyond that, other changes have or will be implemented that are intended to streamline the whole court process including, but not limited to a ‘traffic diversion program’ that is currently in place but not yet used by our town,” Williams said. “It basically allows, in most cases, the recipient of a traffic offense citation to have the matter heard in town court or by an agent of the (County) District Attorney’s office. This, in towns where it is used, has significantly reduced the amount of time that local court officials spend with each case that comes before it.”

Williams said all of these were contributing factors toward a proposal to cut the elected town justice position, which would affect judge Mary Beth Mathey. 

Additionally, Williams said, it has come down to saving money.

“I have asked Dick Tupper, retired supervisor and town financial advisor and Megan Johnson, finance administrator, to put together a brief overview of the financial aspects of the town court over the last many years,” he said. “In reviewing the court’s financial history, it has shown that year after year the expenditures far outweigh the revenue brought in by the court. The expenditures include salary, contractual, and everyday operating expenses. By far, the largest expense incurred by the court is their salary line. In the past seven years the court’s expenditures have exceeded the revenue by an average of $87,420.00 per year.”

Chief court clerk Margaret Capps said in the newsletter the court does not want to get caught up in the political drama the town board’s move has already ushered in.

“A good review of what is done in the court was never made. No questions have been directed to the staff and how this vote will affect the office daily,” Capps said. “Should a vote go forward until this is done?”

A vote on the town board’s decision to cut the position is expected on Nov. 7.

Capps said town attorney John DelVecchio has taken a stance on CAP arraignments that is “not based on fact.”

“Yes, arraignments outside of Court hours are done during a time certain to allow the accused the right to be arraigned with counsel,” Capps said. “That has no bearing on the case load for the court. That case is then sent to the court of origin where it is handled from beginning to end. At least 60% or more of CAP proceedings are for the town court. Moreover, CAP arraignments have absolutely no impact on court revenue.”

Capps echoed a sentiment expressed by town resident Bob Martin at Wednesday’s town board meeting. Martin asked if the court was ever even meant to be a profitable avenue for the town.

“The justice system was not put in place to be a financial source of revenue for municipalities. It is to deter crime and to keep people safe in their community,” Capps said. “Having two judges in the town has not caused a financial loss to the town. It has provided the town with a positive way to conduct justice to the constituents of this community. The state has implemented many new rules and regulations on the court system that have put an added expense on municipalities. This is where the cost has increased to maintain the Courts in all jurisdictions throughout New York.”

Ultimately, Capps said abolishing the second justice position will only backup due process cases.

“Cortlandville court is the fifth-busiest Court in the 6th Judicial District,” she said. “For the past several years Cortlandville court has handled 25% more criminal cases than all other town and village courts in Cortland County combined.”