Holding Court is a series by retired Rye City Court Judge Joe Latwin. Latwin retired from the court in December 2022 after thirteen years of service to the City.
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By Joe Latwin
So you want to be a judge . . .
The requirements for being a city judge are simple. You must be admitted to practice law in New York for at least five years as of the date you commence the duties of the office, and be a resident of the city in which you will serve.
With a few and ever decreasing numbers, to be admitted to practice law in New York, you must graduate from an accredited law school, pass the Bar exam, and be approved by the Character and Fitness Committee. There were some people who, due to military service in World War II, were permitted to practice law without graduating from law school. They could clerk for an attorney for a number of years and then take the Bar Exam. That is no longer possible.
If you meet those minimum qualifications, you then must be selected to serve. In some cities, judges are elected. In Rye, judges are appointed by the Mayor and must be approved by the City Council. In other words, you need a Mayoral appointment and at least four votes on the City Council.
What should a Mayor look for in selecting a judge? The principal qualification I would look for is that the candidate be a trial lawyer. The work of the Court is dealing with litigation. It is no place for on-the-job training. A judge must be able to see the issues, understand what proof is necessary, and be able to render immediate decisions on the evidence. An experienced trial lawyer will be familiar enough with trying cases so as to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and not be distracted.
The candidate should also be of high ethical standard. You want someone who is beyond reproach so that their decisions cannot be questioned. The candidate should be a fair person willing to listen to all the evidence before making any decision. They should have a healthy respect for the rights of all who come before them. They must have a sense of balance, to see each individual case for what it is and provide just as much justice as the parties are entitled and no more. You want a neutral decider, not an advocate. You want someone who, in determining a proper sentence in a criminal case, can see if the defendant is a “bad guy”, someone who just did something stupid and out of character, or made a mistake. I liken this analysis to being a parent – is this a learning experience that requires a “time out”, a grounding and loss of privileges, or a more severe punishment. Of course, most parents faced with correcting their child will make these decisions with love and compassion, but with the strong purpose of making sure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes, it is mixture of punishment and treatment. Some of my most gratifying work on the Court was when I sentenced young folks to get treatment that turned their lives around – kicking a drug dependency or overcoming crises of confidence through counseling and treatment.
The candidate should also have practiced in the local Courts. That way they will be familiar with what goes on in these Courts. This familiarity will prevent the judge from making rookie mistakes. Street smarts is a definite asset.
A candidate should also be able to write in a comprehensible and organized manner. It is vital that when a decision is rendered, the parties know what decision is made and why it was made the way it was. To do that, the candidate must have the ability to find out what the law is. A case may involve repair, building construction, physics, engineering, or animal behavior. Given the variety of cases that come before the Court, the judge cannot know everything, but must be able to look it up or at least be able to ask the right questions.
A candidate must also be willing to work hard for as long as is necessary to deal with the Court’s calendar. That may mean getting up in the middle of the night to come to Court to arraign a defendant, or working late into the evening to get a decision out. They must properly manage the office to assure that cases are not delayed by the Court and to insure prompt justice.
Lastly, the candidate must be a people person. After all, the Court is in the customer service business where often the customer must be disappointed by a decision. It is important that you listen to everyone and given them a full opportunity to present whatever case they have. Many times, all a party really wants to do is be able to tell their story and they will be satisfied if they are given that opportunity. They may lose, but the will feel that they were treated fairly.
In my case, there was also my good looks and modesty!