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What you need to know for 08/21/2017

Princetown town justice ends her tenure by refusing to hold court

Princetown town justice ends her tenure by refusing to hold court

Princetown Town Court has been quiet lately, but not because it’s lacking cases.

Princetown Town Court has been quiet lately, but not because it’s lacking cases.

Outgoing Judge Michelle Van Woeart canceled court’s normal Wednesday evening sessions through December and on one occasion in November because she no longer has security. She said she still maintained hours at Town Hall throughout the month and on days the court would have normally been in session, but simply didn’t take the bench.

“We didn’t have any security,” she said Monday. “And I’m not putting myself out there like that.”

Van Woeart said the work she’s done behind the scenes at the court has helped clear a hefty backlog of cases, which she wanted to close out before her term expires today. In December alone, she said she’s collected roughly $42,000 in fines — which she said is evidence the court is still functioning.

“I’m trying to close my books,” she said. “I’m trying to transition in an orderly manner.”

But the closure drew a stern rebuke from Town Supervisor Michael Joyce, who charges Van Woeart has actually created a backlog of cases by essentially shuttering the court for roughly two months. He said she canceled three dates in September after the Town Board decided in August to eliminate one of the two security officers guarding the court while it was in session.

“We hold our judges and ultimately, our whole justice system, to a higher standard and expect the representatives to behave appropriately,” he stated in a letter to The Gazette last week. “The residents made the correct choice in electing a new town justice, but now we’ll have to see how much Van Woeart, in her parting shot, has cost the residents of Princetown, the county, local law enforcement — everyone, for her decision to cancel court.”

Joyce said at least one law enforcement officer griped about the cancellations. He said he’s also received correspondences indicating out-of-state defendants with tickets returnable to the court were dismayed to show up and find it closed.

“Not even the employees of the town knew,” he said Monday “There were no signs ... there was nothing.”

Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said his office didn’t experience any problems with the court and was aware that cases would be adjourned through December. Likewise, Schenectady County Sheriff Dominic Dagostino said no one from his road patrol indicated they had any problems with the court being closed.

With the town situated on a stretch of the Thruway and Intestate 88, Princetown’s justice court is among the busier courts in the county and collected $430,687 in fines in 2012 alone. It was ranked 142nd among the 1,236 justice courts statewide.

Van Woeart, who was ousted by local attorney William Reynolds in November’s election, has frequently been at odds with the Joyce administration. The latest flap came over a decision to trim the security provided by Schenectady County sheriff’s deputies.

Joyce argued the court didn’t need much security, since it deals primarily with traffic offenses and spending $22,500 a year to station deputies in court was excessive. Dagostino canceled the security detail out of concerns he could face a union issue by stationing only one deputy at the court.

Van Woeart questioned why her security detail was abruptly cut when the funding already existed in the town’s operating budget. She canceled two court dates in September over security concerns.

Van Woeart said she now simply wants to close the chapter on her time as justice, which extended more than 15 years. She questioned why Joyce continues to raise issues about her as she’s preparing to leave office.

“Just let me finish the term,” she said.

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