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Foss: Fight over judgeship is healthy

Foss: Fight over judgeship is healthy

Foss: Fight over judgeship is healthy
Schenectady Mayor Gary R. McCarthy.
Photographer: GAZETTE FILE PHOTO BY MARC SCHULTZ

Does the city of Schenectady need four City Court judges? 

Or would three be just fine? 

Now, I'm inclined to take the state court system at its word when it says that, given the day-to-day busyness of Schenectady City Court, a fourth judge is needed. 

But Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy's call to eliminate the fourth judgeship has raised some interesting questions. 

It's also performed a valuable service in causing the first public disagreement within the Democratic bloc that, until now, has unfailingly supported the mayor's agenda. 

The City Council is supposed to serve as a check on executive power, but it rarely works that way in Schenectady, an increasingly one-party town where even the slightest sign of dissent or independence is treated like mutiny.

This isn't healthy, and it creates an environment where the back and forth that helps hash out ideas and refine proposals, leading to better outcomes, seldom occurs. 

So it's good to see members of the City Council challenging McCarthy's push to eliminate a city judgeship, voting 4-2 to take the side of the state Unified Court System and oppose any state legislation that would reduce the number of judges. 

The concerns these members raised about the mayor's proposal are some of the same questions I have. 

Certainly, they ought to be addressed before any changes are made to the configuration of Schenectady City Court. 

McCarthy is correct when he points out that crime has fallen in Schenectady. 

But what I've heard is that City Court judges have plenty to do, and the state court system has affirmed this, stating, "Schenectady City Court is very busy with annual filings in excess of 18,000 [court filings] in a jurisdiction with a population of 65,0000 ...." 

It's worth taking a closer look at the impact Schenectady's drop in crime has had on the City Court system, and also considering some possible scenarios. 

Such as: What if there's a recession and crime ticks up? 

Will eliminating a judgeship make it difficult to prosecute zoning and building code violations in an expedient manner? The state's "Raise the Age" law shifts more criminal cases involving teens into Family Court and other court programs -- will this cause a significant reduction in City Court caseloads? Or will the impact be negligible?  

Frankly, we don't have very good answers to any of these questions. 

Another issue is the cost. 

The fourth judgeship was created in 2013, and McCarthy has said that meeting all of the state's requirements for it -- which include building an additional courtroom -- could cost the city $3 million. 

If true, well, that's a lot of money, and perhaps McCarthy can make the case that it amounts to an unfunded mandate, and some aid from the state might be in order. 

McCarthy has proposed creating a night court, which would eliminate the need for another courtroom. But the state court system has said that night court is not an option, because it would cost too much to provide the additional security staff and court officers. 

I wouldn't mind hearing a bit more about how a night court would work and whether it would create efficiencies that might benefit city taxpayers who will ultimately foot the bill for a fourth courtroom. 

At the very least, McCarthy's proposal deserves more than the abrupt dismissal it got from the court system. 

The mayor does have an understanding of the court system, having worked as an investigator for the Schenectady County District Attorney for many years. 

As I said earlier, I suspect that the state court system is correct when it says that Schenectady needs four judges. 

But I'm not entirely sure -- and I don't think anyone else really is, either. 

At the very least, we need more information. 

And with so many unanswered questions, the City Council is right to object to eliminating the fourth judgeship. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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