Saratoga County

Report finds village court inadequate

The Ballston Spa village courtroom is inadequate and should be replaced, and many other municipal

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The Ballston Spa village courtroom is inadequate and should be replaced, and many other municipal courts in the county need security improvements, according to a new report by an independent court observers’ group.

The Fund for Modern Courts, a statewide court reform organization, made the findings in a report released Tuesday, based on observations of local courts throughout the county last fall.

The Ballston Spa court was singled out as needing replacement or consolidation with another court, based on physical conditions.

“Monitors observed that Ballston Spa Village Court was a busy court operating in an inadequate facility,” the report said.

“Who’s going to disagree?” responded Ballston Spa Village Justice Thomas Schroeder. “It’s not a new building. … It’s overcrowded, I can’t argue with that.”

The village court is located in a large room off the garage bay of the Ballston Spa police station on Bath Street, a building that was originally built in 1867 as a firehouse. People waiting for court often mill in the bay, and Schroeder acknowledged there’s nowhere private for lawyers to talk to clients.

“It’s not the Taj Mahal,” Schroeder said.

The report recommended the court facility either be replaced or consolidated with the Ballston Town Court, a newer but less busy courtroom located five miles away at Ballston Town Hall.

Schroeder, whose court hears from 70 to 140 cases a night, said he would have no objection to combining with another court, but such a consolidation would be a decision for village and town elected leaders to make.

Also, the report recommended that the Galway, Greenfield and Stillwater town courts consider consolidating with other courts because of the low case loads observers reported.

Ballston Spa is the county’s largest village and is the only one that maintains its own court separate from the nearest town court.

The Fund for Modern Courts, which is based in New York City, earlier this year came out with a report generally in favor of consolidating the state’s local courts. It said consolidation would increase the number of judges who are lawyers, improve education and training, allow for better financial oversight and also better security.

Saratoga, like all upstate counties, has town and village courts that are run by part-time justices. Most of them are laymen, often retired from law enforcement jobs, rather than lawyers. There are 20 local courts in the county, most with two part-time judges, sometimes hearing cases in the same room at the same time.

Those courts are where thousands of traffic, civil and criminal cases are heard each year, including initial arrangements in serious criminal cases that will eventually go to a county-level court for trial or disposition.

Among other findings of the report:

u The Northumberland Town Court isn’t physically accessible for the handicapped. Many of the courts don’t have adequate waiting areas or places for attorney-client conferences.

u There are 14 courts without metal detectors or other entrance screening devices. Only Clifton Park, Corinth, Halfmoon, Moreau and Stillwater have metal detectors.

The report said the other courts should get a security assessment, noting that state aid is available for buying court security devices.

The Stillwater court, which bought a metal detector with a $14,000 state grant last year, last month was awarded a $20,810 grant to improve security by raising the judge’s bench and adding a controlled-access gate.

Stillwater Town Justice Larry Whalen said the improvements were recommended by a security audit, but may not be needed in every courtroom in the county.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said. “There’s a lot of little courts that only have one or two cases a week.”

Although the report cited Stillwater as one of the courts that should consolidate based on light caseload, Whalen said it hears up to 80 or 90 cases on its weekly calendar.

“We consolidated last year with the village of Stillwater. They may not be aware of that,” Whalen said.

Ballston Spa recently got a $30,000 grant for court improvements, some of which will go to security, Schroeder said. It won’t pay for a magnetometer — one of the walk-through metal detectors — because they have to be staffed, and there’s no money for personnel, he said.

Regarding courtroom conduct, the report suggested judges make more effort to tell indigent criminal defendants about legal services, and that they spend more time explaining orders of protection they issue, including the consequences for defendants who violate them.

Fund for Modern Court observers attended 74 local court sessions, and at least one session of every court except Edinburg’s.

According to its literature, the Fund for Modern Court has the goals of promoting the fair administration of justice, equal access to the courts for all and a judiciary that is independent, highly qualified and diverse.

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