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mailmanI'm writing in response to Mike Sigler's letter on July 20th, where he took up arms in defense of the current system of non-lawyer judges in NY State after Elisabeth Hegarty had a letter published the week earlier critical of the same system.

Firstly, I think he wrongly characterized the issue Ms. Hegarty was having; She never criticized Justice Howell or Justice Banfield, she specifically criticized an archaic system, and Mr. Costello, who is running for Lansing Town Justice, for the simple matter that she believed he is unqualified.

While I agree with Mr. Sigler that Justices Howell and Banfield have honorably upheld the dignity of the office for many years and deserve accolades for that, I strongly agree that the NY State system of non-lawyer judges is NOT a simple tradition of wholesome 'neighbor judges,' rather it is an antediluvian throwback to a time when the average small town person did not have access to legal education. While we in Lansing have been lucky to have two such honorable men to serve as justice over the years, there are many, many towns in NY State who have not been so lucky. A simple Google search of 'non-lawyer judges in NY' yields many examples of horrifying results. People with scant grasp of even the most basic legal principles, many with only a grade school education; this decade alone, people have been sent to jail without a guilty plea or a conviction, people refused lawyers, frightened women denied protections from abuse, people denied the right to a trial, it goes on and on. So while I agree with Mr. Sigler that only about twenty percent of Town Judges are lawyers, I strongly disagree with him that it is right. Frankly I'm gobsmacked that anyone in 2018 would defend the idea that the only qualifications necessary are 'a sense of fairness and common sense.'

Fairness and common sense are subjective.

That's why we have a legal system in the first place.

Take for example the case of the two people running for Town Justice this year: Mr. Costello, a lifelong golf professional and Ms. Kennedy-Smith, a lawyer with 19 years experience with a BA from Cornell and a law degree from NYU (a top 10 law school). Ms. Kennedy-Smith, who is also a local native of Tompkins County, has been immersed in the justice system her entire career, and while there are people that would argue that this is somehow a disadvantage, and what is really needed is someone unbound by the fetters of The System and simply some 'good old Common Sense' will suffice, I would remind them that common sense and mastery of The Law, are not mutually exclusive of each other. Although there seems to be a tendency in modern times to vilify lawyers as some sort of intellectual elite, I would remind them that half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers, as were over sixty percent of the framers of the Constitution.

Right now, town judges are required to have a simple few-days' course and then have "continuing education" to hold the position of Town Justice.


It takes 1000 hours and a multi-part proficiency exam to be a Massage Therapist in New York State.

It takes one year experience as a golf pro, a practical and written test, and a thesis to be a Master Golf Teacher under USGTF rules. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a defendant in court for a potentially life-altering matter, to spend your life savings on the best lawyer you could obtain, and to have your legal representation's arguments fall on deaf ears simply because the judge didn't have an understanding of the law?

I am attempting to address the issue of unqualified judges at large, and not to pick on Mr. Costello specifically, but since this is about a Lansing election coming up, let's address some specifics. For example, Mr. Costello claims in his campaign announcement that while he doesn't have a lot of experience in court, he intends to bring his experience dealing with people as a golf professional to the position of Lansing Town Justice.

Imagine if you will, that there is an imaginary position of Tompkins County Golf Commissioner, and imagine Mr. Costello is running for the position; now imagine that Kennedy-Smith intends to bring her experience in the court system to the position of Golf Commissioner.

I don't think there is a person in their right mind who would argue in her favor for the position over Mr. Costello. It would be self-evident who should have the position. Why should it be any different for a complex position like Town Justice? A position in which a lot more is at stake than someone's golf handicap. There are people's police records, homes, and liberty at stake here.

Again, not to disrespect Mr. Costello. He seems like a fine man, and a great member of the community for many years, but to quote his announcement, regarding his vision of how he will serve, and his familiarity with the community he said "Will they be a phys-ed student or a member of my golf team, or just a student who plays the course a lot that I got to know?"

I would remind the denizens of Lansing, that while that sounds wonderfully "Mayberry RFD," the Justice of Lansing will be serving a community of 11,000 people. While some might see it as an advantage that a familiar face may make its way through the system now and again, there is a reason that Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded. Right?

Before I am accused of being polarizing in already divisive times, let me assure you that I am as politically independent as it gets. This isn't a matter of D vs R this is a matter of respect for a system of law that was put in place by our founding fathers. And if NY State won't demand the highest qualifications for Town Justices, at least we citizens have a chance to here. And because we live in a modern world, with access to modern education, we will start to see more qualified candidates for these positions of great responsibility.

We shouldn't see it as bucking tradition, but as honoring the Rule of Law.

Lou Spellman
Lansing, NY


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