Monday’s New York Times has a hair-raising account of incompetence, bigotry, corruption, and inequity in New York State’s “justice courts”: part-time tribunals staffed by untrained and uneducated part-time judges, called “justices” after the traditional English Justices of the Peace. Wednesday’s Times explains the politics of the system. Another installment is promised.
The series is a reminder that substantive rights are worthless without procedural protections, and that unchecked discretion exercised in secret is a formula for tyranny. (Applications to current controversies are left as an exercise for the reader.)
A Supreme Court decision fifteen years ago granted judges total immunity from lawsuit for actions taken from the bench, even when those actions are grossly illegal and beyond the judges’ powers. (For example, a judge who orders someone jailed without trial cannot be sued.) The state, or the town that appoints the judge, might be liable for damages under the civil rights laws if a judge can be shown to have discriminated against a “protected class” of people. But a litigant who is the victim of the judge’s non-racial animus or incompetence is completely out of luck.