In the New York legal system there is a position known as town and village justice. There are 2,000 of these justices operating in villages and small towns. They are not required to be lawyers or to have any formal legal training. Nearly three-quarters of them are not lawyers, and many — truck drivers, sewer workers or laborers — have scant grasp of the most basic legal principles. Some never got through high school, and at least one went no further than grade school. And their courtrooms could be tiny offices or basement rooms without a judge’s bench or jury box. Sometimes the public is not admitted, witnesses are not sworn to tell the truth, and there is no word-for-word record of the proceedings.
The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct oversees all the judges in the state. 70 percent of the disciplinary cases heard by the Commission involve these justices. Some charges: a justice removed for drunk driving; another for physically abusing a colleague; another who, while not a lawyer himself, had nonetheless intervened in a friend’s case in another court by appearing as the friend’s lawyer.