For some towns and villages, maintaining a justice court may pose administrative and financial challenges. Justice courts hear civil, criminal, misdemeanor and traffic cases and are responsible for imposing and collecting a wide range of fines, surcharges and civil fees. Because the financing of justice courts is a local responsibility, there is growing interest by citizens and local governments in exploring consolidation of justice courts where practicable.
In these cases, towns and villages should consider consolidating their justice courts. Benefits include:
- maximizing services by pooling resources;
- streamlining the court system by centralizing services; and
- providing more qualified judges through increased competition.
This guide provides a step-by-step breakdown of the process and outlines some of the relevant issues.
Consolidation Process for Justice Courts in Villages
If a village has its own justice court, the village can abolish the office of village justice. Once the office of village justice no longer exists, the town justice court for the town in which the village is located has jurisdiction of all justice court matters arising in the village.
What needs to happen
The village board must abolish the office of village justice by local law or resolution, subject to permissive referendum. (New York State Village Law Section 3-301[a])
The local law or resolution can only take effect, however, after the elected village justice has finished his or her current term. (Village Law Section 3-301; New York State Constitution, Article VI, Section 17[d])
What you should know
As before, the village will still be entitled to:
- fines resulting from dog control violations and violations of village local laws (i.e., parking ordinances) other than speeding; and
- the local share of the mandatory surcharge collected on handicapped parking violations (currently $15).
However, the village will no longer be entitled to fines imposed for:
- violations of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law that occur within the village (Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1803); and
- criminal offenses that occur within the village.
Consolidation Process for Justice Courts in Towns
Two or more towns that form a contiguous geographic area within the same county may establish a single justice court. This new court would be composed of justices elected from each town whose terms may not end during the same year. (New York State Uniform Justice Court Act, Section 106-a)
What needs to happen
The process to establish a single court may be initiated by one of the following:
- Petition of Registered Voters
- Must be addressed to each town board
- Must be signed by at least 20 percent of the registered voters in each town
- Must be filed with the town clerk in each of the affected towns; one will receive the original petition, and the other town or towns will each receive a certified copy of the petition
- Town Board Resolution
- Must be adopted by one of the towns
- Must call for the reduction of the number of justices in the town and in one or more towns that form a contiguous area
- Must be filed with the town clerk in each of the affected towns; one will receive the original resolution, and the other town or towns will each receive a certified copy of the resolution
Once the process to establish a single town court is initiated, the boards of the affected towns must hold a joint public hearing, which must be held 20 to 40 days after the notice is published. The notice of hearing must be published:
- by the town clerk of the town in which the original petition or resolution was filed;
- within 30 days after the filing of the original and certified copies of the petition or resolution; and
- in the official newspaper of each town, or in the absence of an official newspaper, in a newspaper that is published within the county and has a general circulation within the area of the town.
For the public hearing, the boards of the affected towns must:
- meet at the time and place specified in the notice of hearing;
- select one of its member to preside over the meeting; and
- hear testimony and receive evidence and information that may be presented concerning the petition or resolution to establish a single town court.
Within 60 days after the hearing, the town boards must determine whether to approve the petition or resolution. Each town board must approve the petition or resolution. If they do not, the proceedings terminate and the current justice court structure continues.
If each of the town boards approves the resolution or petition, the boards must prepare a joint resolution that:
- abolishes the office of one justice in each town;
- states that the remaining justice in each town will have jurisdiction in all of the participating towns (the law assumes each town has two justices); and
- identifies each justice whose office will be abolished and each justice whose office will be continued.
If the boards can't reach an agreement as to which office will be abolished in each town, refer to Section 106-a(9) for further instruction.
The town boards must submit the joint resolution to the voters of each town at the next general election, provided it occurs more than 60 days after the final determination of the language of the resolution.
If the resolution is approved by a majority of the persons voting in each town:
- the resolution is adopted, and
- the plan to establish the single town court will be implemented as provided in the resolution.
If the resolution is disapproved by a majority of the persons voting in one or more towns:
- the resolution is defeated, and
- no further action may be taken to implement the plan.
What you should know
If a single town court is established under this process, each justice must keep separate sets of records and dockets and maintain separate bank accounts for each town in which he or she has jurisdiction.
When a single town court is established, each town will retain their respective fine revenues.
If your town is considering consolidating justice court offices, our office may be able to help you assess the costs and benefits by providing revenue and expenditure data.
Town Justice Court Consolidation Process:
Single Town Justice
Two or more adjacent towns within the same county may elect a single town justice to preside in the town courts of each of the towns. (Uniform Justice Court Act Section 106-b)
What Needs to Happen
The town boards of the adjacent towns must adopt a joint resolution providing for a joint study to be undertaken relating to the election of a single town justice. The joint resolution or a certified copy of the joint resolution must be filed in the office of the town clerk of each adjacent town which adopts the resolution.
Once the study is completed, each town that adopted a joint resolution providing for the study must hold a public hearing, which must be held 20 to 30 days after the notice is published. The notice of hearing must be published:
- by each town which adopted a resolution providing for the joint study;
- within 30 days after the conclusion of the joint study; and
- in the official newspaper of each town or, in the absence of an official newspaper, in a newspaper that is published within the county and has a general circulation within the area of the town.
For the public hearing, the town board of each town that was a party to the study must:
- meet at the time and place specified in the notice of hearing; and
- hear testimony and receive evidence and information relating to the election of a single town justice to preside over the town courts of the adjacent towns which are a party to the joint resolution.
Within 60 days of the last public hearing, the town boards of each town that participated in the study must determine whether the town will participate in a joint plan providing for the election of a single town justice to preside in the town courts of two or more adjacent towns. In order for a town to approve the joint plan, its town board must adopt a resolution providing for the adoption of a joint plan. In the event two or more adjacent towns fail to adopt a joint plan, all proceedings under this section shall terminate and the town courts of such towns shall continue to operate in accordance with the existing provisions of law.
Upon the adoption of a joint plan by two or more adjacent towns, the boards of each of the towns must adopt a joint resolution that:
- provides for the election of a single town justice at large to preside in the town courts of the each of the towns;
- abolishes the office of town justice in each of the towns; and
- provides that the election of the single town justice shall occur at the next general election and every fourth year thereafter.
Upon the adoption of a joint resolution, the resolution must be forwarded to the New York State Legislature and constitutes a home rule message pursuant to the New York State Constitution and Municipal Home Rule Law, Article 9. The joint resolution shall take effect after state legislation enacting the joint resolution becomes a law.
What You Should Know
Every town justice elected to preside in multiple towns under this process:
- has jurisdiction in each of the participating adjacent towns;
- must preside in the town courts of each of the towns;
- must maintain separate records and dockets for each town court; and
- must maintain a separate bank account for each town court.
When a single town justice is elected to preside in multiple towns, each town retains its respective fine revenue.
These groups can provide assistance to citizens and local governments interested in justice court consolidation.
New York State Association of Magistrates Court Clerks
Phone: (516) 599-0722
Association of Towns of the State of New York
Phone: (518) 465-7933
Office of the State Comptroller, Justice Court Fund
Phone: (518) 473-6438
Email: [email protected]