Observers from a state commission have been visiting local courts in recent days looking for ways to improve a system they call the "most archaic and bizarrely complicated system in the nation."
New York, which currently has 11 trial courts, should streamline its judicial system into one trial court, according to the Special Commission on the Future of New York State Courts. The group's study concluded that the system in its current condition costs citizens, litigants and the state more than $500 million every year.
Last week, commission officials observing courtrooms across Erie and Niagara counties were well received by local judges.
"Justices are welcoming the study," said Amherst Town Justice Mark G. Farrell, who was appointed to the state's Dunn Commission and also is president of the New York State Magistrates Association.
"I think it's long overdue," Farrell said. "It highlights the value of the justice court and the significant needs, such as facilities, staffing and training. We're not here to accuse or force closure, but for fact-finding."
The commission proposes that the state combine Supreme, County, Surrogate, Family and Claims courts into a single Supreme Court system.
It also recommends a District Court that would include all city courts across the state, as well as the civil and criminal courts in New York City and some courts on Long Island.
The group's report points out that California, which has twice New York's population, has only one trial court. It says people, businesses and state agencies in New York often are forced to argue the same legal matter in several different courts, before several different judges, costing time and money.
"Stories of women who have to face their abuser in criminal court, seek a divorce in Supreme Court, file for an order of protection before one family court judge and fight to maintain child custody or visitation rights before a second family court judge illustrate the unnecessary hardship caused by the disjointed system," according to the report summary.
Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer has signaled support for restructuring, but there is less certainty in the State Legislature.
If commission recommendations come to pass, town and village courts would not be affected by the same restructuring as higher courts. But they also have gained the scrutiny of commissioners, in part because of a New York Times series that called into question the way local courts operate.
Issues such as security, training and pay for local justices top the list of concerns -- nearly 2 million of the 6 million new cases filed each year in New York are heard in local courts.
A senior judiciary official visited several Western New York sites last week, including Amherst and Williamsville, Cambria, Lewiston, Newfane and the Town of Niagara, and West Seneca, Elma and Springville.
The official said security is a big issue, calling some courts with no security a "ticking time bomb." He asked that his name not be used because he's not authorized to speak for the commission.
Farrell said the Town of Amherst had the resources 10 years ago to put in a metal detector and found 41 weapons in the first week it was used.
The visiting judiciary official said there also can be huge differences in pay scales for affluent communities versus small-town communities.
"A judge doesn't have to be an attorney, just elected," the official said. "In fact, 72 percent are not lawyers. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but in some cases it's not so great."
Local justices "are not hicks off the street," Farrell countered. "Even in rural areas, they dedicate themselves to understand the law, to understand the issues. A lot do very well."
In the sparsely populated towns of Newfane and Cambria, both justices have been on the bench for 12 years and both are non-lawyers who bristle at suggestions they are unqualified. They said they are required to go through intensive training every year.
"We all take our jobs very seriously," said Newfane Justice Bruce M. Barnes, who also works as a teacher. He called local justice court "a court of the people."
Cambria Town Justice Amel S. Jowdy Jr. recently retired after 42 years as the town's superintendent of water and waste management. Before he became a local judge in 1995, his father, Amel Sr., spent 28 years as town justice -- originally offering court proceedings in the family kitchen, with Jowdy's mother as town clerk.
Now Jowdy's wife, Sandra, who served for a time as his father's clerk, is his clerk in Cambria Town Court.
"Ninety percent of us want to do a good job and want to be right," Jowdy said. "A suspect can always take their case to a higher level. We have to be careful of our involvement in our community, but we have a personal touch and know what's going on in our community."
Several public hearings will be heard on local courts, with the closest hearing to Western New York scheduled for Sept. 26 in Rochester. Information is available online at www.nycourtreform.org. Final results are expected to be presented in December.