As Stefan exits, village seeks qualified judge

Lesley Stefan

ALTAMONT — With one of the village’s two judges moving, the other will do double duty until a replacement is found. Both of them are lawyers and the mayor is eager to find someone equally qualified.

Lesley Stefan resigned effective Jan. 2, citing as her reason an impending move out of the village. She was elected to the post in April 2013. The village board accepted her resignation “with regret” at its Jan. 6 meeting.

Mayor James Gaughan announced at the meeting that the board would go into executive session to discuss how best to fill the vacancy. On return to open session, Gaughan announced that the board had resolved to spend several months searching for a replacement.

While state law allows him to appoint a justice effective to the end of the village’s year, through April 1, 2015, Gaughan said that he prefers to take time to further investigate possible candidates.

The law also allows the village mayor to appoint a justice at the beginning of April 2015 to serve for one year at most. But, in any case, the village will need to hold a special election in March 2016 to fill out the remainder of Stefan’s term, which runs through March 2017.

For now, the idea that Gaughan presented and the board voted to accept is to have the remaining judge, Rebecca Hout, fulfill the duties of both justices and take full responsibility for the court calendar until at least the beginning of April 2015. Hout has been a village justice for 21 years.

From January through the end of March, Hout’s compensation will be expanded, by adding to her payment the funds that would have been paid to Stefan during the same period. Gaughan emphasized at the meeting that this would not raise the budget expenditure for justices’ salaries; it will just shift to Hout the funds that would have gone to Stefan during the same period.

Gaughan said that he plans to discuss at the April village board meeting his decision on whether to appoint someone for the year 2015–16 or to continue with the administrative arrangement of having just one judge.

Gaughan said at the meeting that this will give him several months to look for someone appropriate, someone who meets “the high standards we have come to expect.”      

He noted that he would like to see the position filled by someone with demonstrated leadership qualities and a record of concern for the village. He specified in an interview later that on a practical level he “would prefer a resident of the village who is a lawyer.”

Qualifications for judge

Technically, the only requirements for the position are residency in the village and never having been convicted of a felony; there is no ceiling on age.

Town and village justices in New York State have included “engineers, employees of large corporations, housewives, factory workers, bus drivers, clerks, printers, farmers, business owners, salespersons, teachers, carpenters, municipal employees, gas company employees, and retired police officers,” according to the New York City Bar Task Force on Town and Village Courts’ Recommendations Relating to Structure and Organization, published in October 2007.

Neil Taber, who worked as a plumber, pilot, and police officer, served as an Altamont justice for 32 years without a law degree, retiring in 2013.  

If a non-attorney is appointed or wins an election, that justice would be required to complete a weeklong Taking the Bench certification course before presiding over any cases.

In addition, all village justices, attorneys or not, must take 12 hours of judicial training per year. This, like the weeklong certification course for non-attorney justices, is administered by the Office of Court Administration.

But the task force’s report also goes on to say that all judges, regardless of the court over which they preside, must be proficient in the law. The report suggests that, while a law degree may not be a requirement, it is preferable.

The task force’s report states, “There is simply too much for non-attorney justices to learn — civil procedure, criminal procedure, substantive criminal law, the U.S. and New York State constitutional law of search and seizure, the U.S. and New York State constitutional law of right to counsel, admission of evidence, constitutional and statutory jury selection procedures, burdens of proof, criminal sentencing, proper interaction with law enforcement and State agencies, indigency screening for appointed counsel, information technology, judicial ethics, court administration, the sociology and penology of addiction and abuse, as well as a panoply of other cutting-edge topical issues of law and justice — for a single week of basic training to suffice, if it ever could.”

According to Hout, village courts have preliminary jurisdiction over felony cases and full jurisdiction over misdemeanors. The village courts can hold felony preliminary hearings and with respect to misdemeanors, bail hearings, pretrial suppression hearings, and trials, including jury trials. They also hear small claims proceedings involving claims of up to $3,000, as well as other civil actions and proceedings, including landlord-tenants cases.

Village courts, Hout said, also have the authority to act in emergency family court proceedings at certain times, and issue orders of protection in domestic abuse matters, in both emergency family court proceedings and criminal cases. They handle all traffic infractions and vehicle and traffic law misdemeanors, including cases involving drunk or drugged driving. Village courts are also responsible for financial reporting regarding court funds, including fines and surcharges, and for safeguarding those funds.

Hout also noted that village justices are required to be on-call 24 hours a day.

“We have been lucky,” Gaughan told The Enterprise, “that these two justices [Hout and Stefan] are lawyers.”

Hout pointed out that Neil Taber, the justice before Stefan, was not an attorney. Hout noted, “But he came from law enforcement, so he certainly had knowledge of criminal law.” Hout has been justice since 1993, working with Taber for over two decades.

Gaughan told The Enterprise that another important qualification is willingness to serve. The current salary for justices is the same, he said, as the mayor’s salary: $4,623, which he described as “the lowest compensation in Albany County.” As with all of the village’s elected positions, he said, the point is not economic gain, but performing an important public service.

Stefan underscored the time commitment needed. Even with her legal background, she found it necessary to do training on her own above and beyond that which was required, she told The Enterprise.

Although as an attorney she was not required to do so, she “pretty much did the whole course” for non-attorney justices “on my own time, just to get up to speed.” And she often brushed up on issues that she knew were soon to come before her, such as landlord-tenant law.

Stefan, reflecting on her year-and-a-half on the village bench, said that she thinks “it’s definitely a positive to have a legal background” but added that it may not be absolutely necessary.

“It all depends on the person,” she said.

The candidates must be willing, she said, to invest a good deal of time to familiarize themselves with the law related to the kinds of cases that will come before them and must be comfortable with reaching out to the state-run City, Town and Village Resource Center or to their own co-justice when procedural or administrative questions arise. Of course, she added, justices must act alone when deciding how to rule on cases or motions and how to apply the law to the facts.

Anyone interested in exploring the idea of serving as village justice should contact Gaughan by phone at 861-8554, ext. 10 or by email at [email protected].

Other business

In other business at its Jan. 6 meeting, the village board:

— Heard from Altamont Police Chief Todd Pucci that the village hall serves as Altamont’s warming station. “So if anyone loses power, they can come here and stay,” he said. The best way to get access to the hall, he suggested, would be to call the Guilderland Police Department on its non-emergency line, which is 356-1501;

— Heard thanks from Norman Bauman to everyone who helped with the 2014 Altamont Victorian Holiday. “I think it was the best one yet,” he said. He mentioned that Santa Claus had entertained about 350 young people, and that a total of about 300 house-tour tickets were sold;

— Approved the application of Ryan Rafferty, a resident of Altamont and a senior at Guilderland High School, to become an apprentice firefighter. Rafferty told The Enterprise during a break in the meeting that as an apprentice he will go on calls alongside firefighters, but will not yet be allowed to enter houses;

— Determined that it will hold a budget workshop on Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. This is in addition to the next village board meeting, which will be on Feb. 3 at 7 p.m.; and

— Scheduled two public hearings for its Feb. 3 meeting. One is on proposed Local Law No. 1 of 2015 of the Village of Altamont Flood Damage Protection. The other is on authorizing the village police department to spend $28,180.70 in funds from the Police Car Reserve to buy a new car. Chief Pucci said that this is part of a long-term plan to cut down the number of police cars in use, from four to three. A 2006 Chevy Impala is the last of the older fleet that needs to be replaced, he said; the force will then go down to a nine-year rotation.

More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.