Attorney Ray Schlather, chair of the County Court Consolidation Task Force

After over a year of reviewing the Tompkins County court system in search of ways to increase quality and efficiency, the Municipal Court Task Force recommended to the legislature last week that a central court be created to handle only cases of driving while intoxicated. 

Referred to as a “DWI part,” the new countywide court would be a part of the Tompkins County Supreme Court. According to Ray Schlather, chair of the task force, it would be similar to the Ithaca City DWI part, which covers all misdemeanor and preliminary felony DWIs. Tompkins County currently has a Felony DWI part, where all felony DWIs are presided over by a single county court judge. 

The task force’s report detailed other recommendations as well, including establishing a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, establishing a countywide Youth Court, furthering investigating Mental Health Court, improving electronic access and use of technology.

The task forced didn’t shy away from acknowledging that the current court structure is flawed. In the very first paragraph of its recommendation, the task force states its case plainly: “New York State has one of the most complicated, inefficient and costly court systems of all states.”

It goes on to chronicle the history of the state court system, noting that in 1962 the State Constitution was amended with the adoption of a new article that provided some structural overhaul but left the courts at the lowest level in the system largely untouched. 

“…New York’s Justice Courts have continued largely unchanged for over 300 years,” the report says, “reflecting steadfast voter and legislative commitment both to the continued existence of local courts and to the unique role they play in New York’s justice system.” 

Instituting a countywide DWI court has a number of advantages, said Schlather, and the strategy is unanimously supported by the task force. He explained that the task force learned that DWI cases are  a burden on town and village courts, and that there is some level of unevenness in the delivery of justice in DWI cases as well. 

Currently two-thirds of all DWIs in the county are handled by local town and village justices, Schlather said; the task force reasoned that if the county can reduce the caseload of local justices then the need for them would be diminished, which would promote the voluntary dissolution and consolidation of some town and village courts. 

The task force recommends that the county legislature make the argument to New York State that, based on the county’s population growth over the last 50 years, the state should fund a third county court level judge. 

Fifty years ago Chemung County had a population of about 100,000 and three county court level judges, Tompkins County having about 66,000 residents and two county court level judges. 

Despite the fact that Tompkins County’s population grew to 105,000 while Chemung County’s dropped to 88,000, the allocation of judges has remained the same. 

Legislator Martha Robertson (D-Dryden) asked about the opposing points of view; what might be lost if the county moved forward with the task force’s recommendations, she asked. 

“The most prominent opposing argument is the status quo,” Schlather replied. “The status quo does work, in some sense. There’s this thing called grassroots justice… the opposing view is we have 300 years of town and village justices who are elected by the people in our community, and therefore that person should be given the authority to be basically the God, if you will, of justice in that particular community.”

“And it’s a compelling argument in many respects,” Schlather continued. “I think one of the important things we’ve learned is that, particularly in this area in Tompkins County, so many people subject to that level of justice don’t come from that community; they happen to be passing through or just moved there or are renting, so it’s not as parochial as one might think.”

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