Franklin has had one or more Justices of the Peace since its earliest days, although since a State statute was passed in 1962, he is referred to simply as Justice.
This position began in England during the Middle Ages when a proclamation of Richard I in 1195 appointed knights to keep the peace locally. In 1264, Simon de Montfort appointed Keeper of the Peace in every county in the land.
In 1361, a law first used the term Justice of the Peace to refer to those who upheld the Game Laws. (They were wealthy land owners who had a personal interest in arresting poachers.) Later their responsibilities expanded to include administering all local laws and providing services such as roads and bridges.
At first, Justices were appointed by the English House of Lords, but after 1789 the English people elected them. Since the beginning, our Town Justices have been elected.
Our Franklin Justice maintains the laws of our Town and State. New York is a home rule state and as such we have control over local justice through elections every four years. The body of New York State Laws that regulates the operation of all Town and Villages is called Town Law. There are also the Local Laws that each Town and Village enact. Most years our Town Board does not pass a single Local Law, but some years they pass as many as three. Our Justice does not enforce the Village Local Laws.
He arraigns suspects, tries minor criminal and civil cases, issues warrants, adjudicates traffic violation, hears landlord/tenant disputes, adjudicates environmental conservation violations, issues orders of protection, and performs marriages. Town justice does not try major cases, wills, or boundary disputes. He does not normally handle family matters, unless Family Court is not in session. A justice does not need a law degree, unlike a judge. Therefore any Franklin adult citizen can run for the position. New justices are required to take an initial eight days of training and then annual continuing education courses.
Law enforcement officials with jurisdiction in Franklin are New Your State Troopers, the Delaware County Sheriff, and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officers. Trooper barracks in Oneonta, Sidney/Unadilla, and Margaretville belong to Troop C.
There is a dispute as to where New York City Department of Environmental Protection has jurisdiction. Being a home rule state, no outside local law enforcement has jurisdiction unless the County or Town grants it. New York City was formally given oversight of the construction of the Reservoirs, but nothing explicit after their completion. Yet the DEP continue to operate even beyond the watershed of the reservoirs. This issue is currently before the courts again.
Anyone arrested within the Town of Franklin must be brought before our Justice to be arraigned if he is available. (If our Town Justice is unavailable, then a Justice in an adjacent town arraigns.) This can happen at any time and can be in any public space, not necessarily the Town Court. At the arraignment, the Justice considers the charges alleged by the arresting officer and either waives the charges or processes the accused. Processing can take an hour, longer for more serious charges. Identifying information is collected from the accused. He or she is informed of their rights including the right to council. If the accused wants counsel, but says that he or she can not afford an attorney, then the Justice decides if one is warranted. Charges are presented and the consequences of a conviction are explained. If the accused does not want to consult an attorney, the Justice can accept a plea. In the end, the accused can be released (ROR or released on their own recognizance), posts bail, or is imprisoned in the County jail if they can not make bail or the charges are too serious to merit bail.
Town Court, also known as Justice Court, meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month at Town Hall, 554 Main Street. The only exception is in November when the Thanksgiving holiday pushes the later meeting to the fifth Thursday. At the second meeting in the month, Assistant District Attorney Steven Rothenberg is present to represent the State. The more serious cases are heard then. Court starts at 6 pm and lasts two to three hours. Proceedings are open to you the public except when youthful offenders are involved. Records of all the cases before the Town Court are stored in the Town Hall and the Town Garage.
Criminal and civil cases come before the court. Criminal cases involve infractions, violations, or misdemeanors. (Felony charges are heard by County Court in Delhi.) Cases are usually settled by the defendant pleading guilty to the original or more commonly lesser charges. If the defendant insists that he or she innocent, then the case goes to trial. Our Franklin Justice holds a dozen or two bench trials a year where he presides and decided. At the defendant’s request, a jury trial can be held where the jury decides — although no one remembers when the last jury trial was held in Franklin Court. Convictions of infractions and violations do not result in a permanent record.
Civil cases involve either small claims for less than $3,000 or lawsuits for less than $5,000. The judgement for small claims only involves money, whereas lawsuits can yield various reliefs. Cases can be brought against individuals, businesses, or government, although the latter requires that government be notified with 90 days of the incident. (Claims against New York State are brought in the Court of Claims in Albany.) A claimant begins the process by filling out a form from the Court Clerk and paying $10 or $15. More details of the process can be read at website for Town & Village Courts: nycourts.gov/courts/townandvillage.
Court Clerk is responsible for running the office. Jan Schlafer has been our Clerk for the last eight years. She can be reached at PO Box 941, Franklin, NY 13775 or while court is in session, at 829-3431. A Court Clerk may explain rules and procedures; provide forms; list options; or refer people to other offices. A Court Clerk may not give advice about what you should do or opinions of how the Justice will rule.
Franklin Court is one of 1,277 Justice Courts in New York State, which include both Town Courts (925) and Village Courts (352). Together they hear two million cases each year and collect $210 million in fees, fines, and surcharges. Justice courts are financed by local taxes, and ours cost us approximately $10,000 this year.
Town Courts are the foundation of the court system in New York State. Above the Franklin Town Court is the Delaware County Court in Delhi presided over by Judge Carl F. Becker for the past five years. Any case decided by our Justice can be appealed first to the County Court. (Judge Becker also presides over the Delaware Surrogate Court, which deals with wills and estates, and the Delaware Family Court.) Above him is the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, Third Department, which meets in Albany. (Our state is divided into four Judicial Departments.) The highest court in New York State is the Court of Appeals in Albany. Above that is only the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C.
Our current Justice is Nathan R. Banks who was elected last November and began serving this January. Previously Justice Donald T. Smith, served for two terms of four years each. While the court session usually lasts only one to three hours, paperwork can keep our Justice in the office past midnight. In addition, at any hour of the day or night, the Justice could have to arraign a suspect. What is more, while half the towns in our County employ two Justices to share this burden, our Justice does it all. (Franklin had two Justices until a few years ago.) Nevertheless this is a part time position and Franklin pays only $4,300 a year – among the lowest of any town in Delaware County. It is some compensation that Justices do get the pleasure of performing weddings, and his Honor Justice Banks is looking forward to his first this July 4th.
Many reforms are being discussed for the New York State system of Justice Courts including: requiring more training of Justices, requiring a law degree, better record keeping, and more oversight by the State. Soon the State will supply equipment for recording proceedings and for electronic transfer of information. The most radical change being discussed is elimination of the part-time position of Town Justice to be replaced by a full-time District Judge. Such a loss of local control has been suggested repeatedly over the last half century by various commissions, but has been widely unpopular each time.