Enterprise goes too far in defending judge

To the editor:

A recent editorial addressed the stipulation between former Harrietstown Justice Harold Riley and the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, under which he resigned his position as town justice.

Although the editorial does not make it clear, it’s important to understand that the commission has not found Mr. Riley guilty of any of any of the allegations in the complaint against him. Indeed, he has consistently denied them.

The stipulation only contains a summary of the allegations, which the commissioner’s administrator inserted to ensure, in his words, that Mr. Riley did not resign from the bench “without it coming out that he left under disciplinary charges.”

Although the stipulation did not address the merits of the allegations, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise chose to do so and found that they seem like “much ado about – not nothing, but nothing terribly scandalous,” “pretty small potatoes,” “traffic-ticket-level stuff,” “procedural mistakes.” This is the focus of my comments.

The three principal allegations summarized in the stipulation are as follows:

“(1) in numerous cases, predominantly Vehicle and Traffic Law violations, Respondent (Mr. Riley) engaged in inappropriate conversations with unrepresented defendants at their arraignments and other appearances before him and allowed them to make potentially incriminating statements, (2) in numerous cases, Respondent dismissed or reduced charges against defendants without notice to or consent of the district attorney as required by law, (3) in several cases Respondent made statements that appeared to coerce defendants to enter guilty pleas.”

It is true that the charges involved do not involve crimes, and I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Riley’s assertion that he always attempted to be fair and just on behalf of the people and the defendants. However, the charges are not mere “procedural mistakes” but raise serious questions about the role of the law in our judicial system.

Justice courts routinely try criminal misdemeanors, which can carry sentences of a year or more in jail. The rights against self-incrimination and coerced guilty pleas – enshrined in both the federal and state constitutions – are central to our system of justice. Any actions by a judge – especially repeated actions – that violate those rights can result in injustice and lifelong consequences for the defendants involved, and can erode public confidence in the judicial system.

I accept Mr. Riley’s belief that his actions were not intended to prejudice defendants but stemmed from his informal approach to running his court. Nevertheless, it is vitally important that these rights be protected so that if you, or your friends or loved ones, ever appear before a justice court, you and they will receive a fair and just outcome.

Similarly, the state law prohibiting justices from reducing or dismissing criminal charges without the DA’s consent is designed to promote equal application of the criminal law and to prevent favoritism in the administration of justice. The state has a clear and legitimate interest in seeing to it that this law is obeyed.

Instead of denigrating the importance of the accusations, the ADE should use its voice in the community to encourage justices to use their considerable discretion under the criminal laws to reach humane outcomes, while at the same time fully upholding the protections those laws provide defendants and the criminal justice system. True justice requires both.

Edward Murphy