“Justice courts” and their injustices

A depressing chronicle of petty tyranny, and a reminder of the futility of substantive rights without procedural protections and the tendency of unchecked discretion, exercised in secret, to invite abuse.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on ““Justice courts” and their injustices”

Comments are closed.