More ‘informality’ than breach of justice

We’re glad someone at the state level is watching over town and village justices, but the recent prosecution of Howard Riley by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct seems like much ado about – not nothing, but nothing terribly scandalous.

It was important that the Enterprise report the news of the matter, but we hope people don’t jump to the conclusion that Howard was a crooked judge.

Now before we go any further, we definitely need to qualify this editorial on several points:

1. Howard was an Enterprise employee from the 1940s to the 1970s, rising from delivery boy to editor and general manager. Since 2003 he has written a weekly history column for the paper. We’ve also interviewed him for countless stories. Over the years, he’s become more than a charming acquaintance to us; he’s our friend.

2. But while we’re very familiar with Howard, we’re not very familiar with Harrietstown court sessions and therefore are unable to say how Howard conducted his.

3. There is also much we don’t know about what the state investigation found. When Howard retired as judge at the end of July, settling the charges against him – although he insists he left for other reasons – an agreement he signed allowed for the public release of a case’s summary and outcome but not its full record. We know some of the details, but that’s from talking to Howard. While we’ve never known him to be dishonest, he’s not exactly an unbiased observer. Therefore, it’s totally possible that there’s something the commission knows and we don’t that could change our mind.

But based on what we know, the allegations that dogged Howard for more than a year-and-a-half seem like pretty small potatoes.

He definitely made some procedural mistakes – he admits that. He once let a defendant speak before a plaintiff in court – it’s always supposed to be the plaintiff first. He sometimes passed on reading the full legal procedure to those accused of vehicle and traffic violations – letting them potentially make incriminating statements without a lawyer present. He sometimes didn’t ask the district attorney’s office before dismissing or reducing charges – although DA’s office lawyers are rarely there because they have so many courts to cover in Franklin County.

The commission also alleges he made statements that appeared to coerce defendants to enter guilty pleas. He counters that what it was was “explaining to defendants what will take place if they plead guilty or not guilty.”

We’re not all that surprised, knowing Howard, that he wouldn’t strictly go by the book. Some of these actions are worthy of discipline. We all make mistakes and need to be corrected. But Howard’s misdeeds aren’t that bad. It’s traffic-ticket-level stuff in comparison to serious judicial misdeeds: ethical breaches for personal gain or revenge, prejudice against groups of people, drunkenness, laziness, neglect of record keeping or use of the court as a municipal revenue tool through over-heavy fines.

“Any informality that may be an extension of my personality has never impacted the results of any case,” Howard wrote in a public response to the charges. For us on Thursday, that was the quote of the day.

Judges should be held to high standards, but different levels of violations deserve different levels of correction.

Howard says he learned his disciplinary process taught him that “The commission does not have a clue as to how these courts operate.” We’re not sure about that, but we do know that many people around New York – especially in New York City, especially lawyers – believe rural town and village justices are hopelessly incompetent, and that these courts should be replaced with a state-run district court system. One key reform, as they see it, would be to only let lawyers be local judges.

Our old, rural system could probably use a fair bit of consolidation – for that matter, we could stand to consolidate some municipalities altogether – but overall, it should stay. Consider: Franklin County’s only municipal justice who was a lawyer, Paul Herrmann of Saranac Lake, was also disciplined by the commission and is no longer on the bench.

Also, there are too few lawyers around these parts, and we need more of them appearing before judges rather than as them.

Someone like Howard, with no college education but with 83 years of life experience in the Saranac Lake area, is just as qualified as a lawyer to make just decisions – in many ways more so. An overly legalistic view, with too little humanism, can hamper rather than help the goal of true justice.