The New York Times has had, in 2006, an astounding story on so-called "justice" courts in that state--courts overseen by people who have no legal training, in which people are regularly subjected to criminal punishment without proper safeguards or assistance, and where many of the "judges" are anything but:
People have been sent to jail without a guilty plea or a trial, or tossed from their homes without a proper proceeding. In violation of the law, defendants have been refused lawyers, or sentenced to weeks in jail because they cannot pay a fine. Frightened women have been denied protection from abuse.
These are New York’s town and village courts, or justice courts, as the 1,250 of them are widely known. In the public imagination, they are quaint holdovers from a bygone era, handling nothing weightier than traffic tickets and small claims. They get a roll of the eyes from lawyers who amuse one another with tales of incompetent small-town justices.
A woman in Malone, N.Y., was not amused. A mother of four, she went to court in that North Country village seeking an order of protection against her husband, who the police said had choked her, kicked her in the stomach and threatened to kill her. The justice, Donald R. Roberts, a former state trooper with a high school diploma, not only refused, according to state officials, but later told the court clerk, “Every woman needs a good pounding every now and then.”
A black soldier charged in a bar fight near Fort Drum became alarmed when his accuser described him in court as “that colored man.” But the village justice, Charles A. Pennington, a boat hauler and a high school graduate, denied his objections and later convicted him. “You know,” the justice said, “I could understand if he would have called you a Negro, or he had called you a nigger.”
And several people in the small town of Dannemora were intimidated by their longtime justice, Thomas R. Buckley, a phone-company repairman who cursed at defendants and jailed them without bail or a trial, state disciplinary officials found. Feuding with a neighbor over her dog’s running loose, he threatened to jail her and ordered the dog killed.
“I just follow my own common sense,” Mr. Buckley, in an interview, said of his 13 years on the bench. “And the hell with the law.”
Read the rest. (HT: Wisconsin Boy)
Update: It looks like there have been some efforts since then to reform the system. In 2008, the state issued this report on the progress of its "Action Plan" for reforming the system. It's pretty clear from that report that little serious progress had been made. Then last month the Times had this story showing that even the modest efforts at fixing the system are coming to nothing:
In its report in 2008, the commission appointed by Judge Kaye suggested that the town and village courts might not be constitutional because they do not provide defendants with a right to a judge who is a lawyer. It noted that “many non-attorney justices face difficulties handling complex motions and misdemeanor jury trials.”
But the commission concluded that there was “no statewide political appetite” for wholesale change. It proposed the compromise that defendants facing possible jail time be permitted to “opt out” of the justice courts.
Ms. Burton, the commission member who said a defeat of the proposal would be a setback, was the lone dissenter on the 31-member commission. Ms. Burton, who is the general counsel of the Hearst Corporation, argued in a written opinion that defendants who face time in jail need even greater protections.