SO YOU want to be a judge.
It takes seven years of higher education to become a lawyer. But it takes only six days of judge school to become a judge.
Not much else matters in the way of credentials. Law degree, high school diploma, typing skills -- the lack of these won't stop you from handing out jail sentences. This is a career for anyone who has watched Judge Wapner and said, "I could do that."
One requirement for becoming a town or village justice in New York is that you must be 21 years old. And you have to get elected.
The election part isn't as difficult as it sounds. The new judge in Bennington, near Attica, was elected in November with 38 votes. He didn't win by 38 votes. He got 38 votes. And now he's the judge.
Legal training is the exception among town and village justices. Of the 2,300 local judges in New York State, fewer than one in four finished law school. Average education is two years of college. Most judges, something like 90 percent, finished at least the 10th grade.
Judge school is a six-day basic course in laws and procedures. You don't get certified to be a judge unless you pass the final exam. The final exam has 50 true-or-false questions. You need to answer 35 of them correctly in order to pass.
That's it. You're a judge.
But New York is not about to let you go out and become the hanging judge of East Otto. Felony crimes are assigned to higher courts, where the judges must have law degrees. But you can send misdemeanor offenders to jail for a year. You can levy civil damages up to $5,000 and decide small claims cases up to $2,000.
And you can do weddings.
But, most of all, you'll be accepting guilty pleas on speeding tickets.
The pay is usually less than $10,000 a year, depending on the size of the town. A judge may collect up to $75 per wedding. Court usually meets several times a month, but the judge is on call 24 hours a day for arraignments.
It sounds like a crazy notion, putting gavels in the hands of laymen. But who ever said a law degree imparted wisdom?
"I think a non-lawyer can call them just as well as anybody," says Judge Alex M. Dominick, 66, who has served on the bench in Java for 25 years. He is a retired dairy farmer. "To me, it's 99 percent common sense."
Town of Colden Judge William Montgomery, bus driver for the Holland Central Schools, agrees: "You don't need all those big law books to come up with an answer."
These are the courts closest to the people, presided over by bus drivers, schoolteachers, factory workers and farmers. The Harrison Division of General Motors has been an especially productive manufacturer of judges. Six Harrison workers stamp out car radiators by day and pound gavels in court by night.
"I find myself watching Judge Wapner a lot, to see if I agree with how he renders decisions," says Town of Cambria Judge Roger L. Devole, general supervisor of production control at Harrison. "About 80 percent of the time I agree with Wapner."
Judge Dominick doesn't bother with a Bible, gavel or black robe when he holds night court in the Town of Java. He prefers blue jeans and a denim jacket.
He has a deep voice, which sounds gruff when he holds forth on a case. He has long white sideburns and mobile gray eyebrows that seem to freeze when he fastens a shrewd stare on a witness. But he has a sentimental side, too. He carries in his wallet a picture of himself and his late wife, Betty Lee, the day he proposed to her in Letchworth State Park in 1944.
The judge's bench is a chair behind a metal desk in a cramped office in the Java Town Building. A sign on the wall behind the judge explains penalty fines in neat hand-printed letters. The office door is open to a larger room, where sullen violators await their turn beneath a big mural of an American flag. More come in, blinking as their eyes adjust to the light. It's early evening, but Java is shut down, except for a few establishments like the bar down the road and Dominick's court.
The plaintiff and five defendants in a trespassing case approach the desk.
"People are kind of touchy around here," Dominick says to the five teen-age boys arrayed before him in blue jeans, boots and windbreakers. "You read about people having their cabins set fire to."
"We thought it was state land," says one of the boys.
Dominick himself was arrested when he was 12 years old for carrying a gun to go hunting. He says he understands kids who do something stupid and get in trouble. "I usually give a kid one chance," he says. He'll accompany a fine or a jail sentence with a piece of grandfatherly advice.
Sitting next to him at all times when court is in session is Darlene Hackett, his indispensable court clerk for 20 years. "To tell you the truth," Dominick says, "I don't get into the law too much. Darlene knows what the fines are and I decide how hard they're going to get hit."
Dominick puts on a stern look and scrutinizes the young trespassers, who have decided to plead guilty.
"Can I speak up?" asks the plaintiff, a shrill middle-aged woman in a white windbreaker with an American Airlines logo.
"Sure," says Dominick.
"What were you guys doing way back there? You were way too far in to be just browsing."
"Just driving around. I really had no idea what road I was on."
Dominick thinks this over. He knows how particular the landowners are, yet he can see the other side of the question, having lived in Java all his life, played and hunted in the woods and fields. He started working when he finished high school, at about the same age as the five trespassers. He became a dairy farmer. He was the pitcher on the Java Rod & Gun Club's baseball team. And one day 25 years ago, local officials asked him to be the new judge.
He has a friend who took a different route, leaving town, going to college and law school, and now the friend is a county judge. "I stayed where I was, and I wouldn't trade places with him," Dominick says. "I wouldn't want it as a career." Dominick earns $1,800 a year as a judge.
Dominick decides to fine the boys $25 each, plus the state's surcharge of $42.
"Like I say, ordinarily it wouldn't arouse so much flak," he tells the boys almost apologetically. "But there's a $5,000 reward for the people who set that fire, and some of them are trigger-happy, so next time you're out there, be careful."
Some experts question the wisdom of making judges out of regular folks.
"Everyone else in the courtroom has to be an attorney to do anything, except for the town justice, and he should know more than anyone," says an attorney with a small-town practice in Erie County.
But the system has held up well against the attacks.
Doris Marie Provine, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, concluded in a book that the local courts work. She says the lawyers who argue that judges should be attorneys are motivated by jealous professional concerns.
"Lawyers like to believe there's some mystique about what they do," says Eugene W. Salisbury, a Buffalo attorney who supports non-lawyer judges and who also is village justice in Blasdell.
There's something reassuring about visiting night court, a well-lighted room in the country where for a few hours the truth is knowable and you don't have to be an expert to grasp it.
"Really, what you're looking for is just somebody who's fair," says a police officer who hauls speeders and drunken drivers into town and village courts. "To suggest a non-lawyer is incapable of being fair or incapable of understanding the law at that level is an elitist position."
It's the first day of judge school for a crop of newly elected justices.
Class is held at the law offices of Lipsitz Green Fahringer Roll Salisbury & Cambria on Delaware Avenue, where Salisbury is a partner. Salisbury is program director of town and village judge training.
He delivers an opening pep talk to the new judges like a raspy-voiced drill sergeant.
"It ain't fun, it ain't easy, it's sometimes very satisfying, but it's not a piece of cake," he says. "You will be called upon to pass criminal judgments on people in your community. You will be asked to settle disputes between your neighbors, maybe even the people next door."
The class of 13 includes a sculptor from Ward, a food broker from Bennington, a teacher from Springville, a factory worker from Sheridan, a court clerk from Newfane, a product designer from Bolivar, a real estate lawyer from Sweden who wants to brush up on trial procedures, another non-lawyer who didn't identify his day job, and five tribal judges from the Seneca Nation.
Salisbury covers some of the ground rules judges must follow. Judges aren't supposed to lend the prestige of their office to outside activities.
"You cannot run the fire department bingo game anymore. You can't collect money for the Boy Scouts," Salisbury says.
The sculptor from Ward, who has been active in protesting the nuclear dump proposed for Allegany County, realizes he may have to give that up.
Salisbury also has valuable tips on the mechanics of judgeship -- such as, where do you find a black robe? Rather than order from a judicial supply store, Salisbury says, it's cheaper to get someone's old high school graduation gown.
Over the next six days of the class, a series of specialists comes in to give crash workshops on everything from criminal procedure and evidence to lineups and sentencing.
During lunch breaks the judges hike over to the Main Place Mall for hot dogs at Louie's, and invariably in the food court there's a judges' table with lively discussion.
"I was a little surprised when I called Albany and they 'Your honored' me this and 'Judged' me that," says John Emerling, 45, the food broker from Bennington, who is wearing a lapel pin from the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. He has a sunny manner reminiscent of Corp. Dobbs on "F Troop."
Emerling's road to the judgeship began a few months ago when he was persuaded to become one of three write-in candidates in the general election for the justice position in Bennington, after no one ran in the primary. One hundred people wrote in names. Emerling won the job with 38 votes.
"I think that being a judge takes a certain type of a person," says Paul Till, 52, a production worker in the rolling mill at Al Tech Specialty Steel. He hasn't been elected in Sheridan, but is taking the class in case an opportunity arises. "I think you have to care about the community. I'm not looking for status. I'd like to be involved that way in the community."
The new judges already have an idea of what the job will be like.
"You have to be firm, and you have to make the right decision," Till says. "I think you're really going to have to ponder on the search and seizure quite a bit, because there's really quite a bit of technicality."
Emerling pictures the law as "a living thing, it's flowing, it's changing." He predicts, "Making the right decision will be the hardest part."
It's the night before Thanksgiving and night court is over in the Town of Java, but Judge Dominick has just gotten a call from the Wyoming County Sheriff's Office that an officer is bringing in two youths for a felony burglary arraignment.
Dominick settles back with a corncob pipe to wait for the squad car and the prisoners.
"I think when you've dealt with people a long time, you can see who's telling the truth," he muses. "You do like Wapner does. You try to tell who's telling the truth and who's not."
He says the job is helping people more than anything else, especially young people.
"If you can get through to them, I think they appreciate a break and you don't see 'em again. I know how I would feel if I got fined unjustly."
He says he's a little disgusted with the way justice works in the big leagues.
"There seems to be a lot different justice according to status," he says. "That's what bothers me."
The squad car pulls up and a sheriff's officer comes in.
Dominick quizzes him, eyebrows frozen, as the officer states the facts: Two teen-agers, still in the car, were part of a group that was drinking and stole tools and a microwave oven from a cabin on Java Lake. These two turned themselves in. Dominick has to decide whether to set a heavy bail, as felonies usually deserve. But with bail set, the kids probably would spend the night in jail.
Dominick is silent for a while. Then, suddenly, he smiles.
"Bring 'em in!"
The two boys shuffle in, heads hanging.
He looks stern again, and tells the boys the kind of hot water they're in.
Then he adds, "Being it's the day before Thanksgiving," he's going to let the boys go without bail, as long as they promise to come back.
"This is probably the last trouble they'll ever be in," he says, an instinct -- right or wrong -- found in no law book.