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The road to reform starts at home

Head of the Harbor's justice court. The village's

Head of the Harbor's justice court. The village's justice, Ellen Fishkin, resigned recently amid allegations of misconduct. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

For Long Island residents, flaws arise in the everyday administration of justice.

Two weeks ago, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct revealed the resignation of attorney Ellen Fishkin as justice of the Head of the Harbor village court. The panel disclosed she’d been under investigation for alleged misconduct that included shoving one prosecutor, accusing another of bigotry over not offering a lenient plea in a traffic case to an associate of her husband, and erratic management of her office.

The commission termed her departure under pressure "appropriate."

Several weeks earlier, Manorhaven Village Judge Peter Gallanter resigned and agreed in a stipulation with the commission never to "seek or accept judicial office at any time in the future." He’d been accused of reducing or dismissing tickets of defendants with whom he had personal relationships and of using sexist language toward women.

Such cases and accusations are perennial. There is always a temptation to proclaim a need for top-to-bottom reforms. But how would it happen?

For years we’ve heard numerous reports of uneven and unprofessional practices dispensed in the nooks and crannies of the state’s famously jagged patchwork of a judicial system. But calls to redraw bureaucratic charts, or institute sweeping systemic rules, or push through a constitutional change draw bursts of attention before receding into the landscape.

Back in 2007, the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts explored the system’s outer reaches, the small towns and villages, and reached several basic conclusions. At the time it was reported that the state has more than 1,200 town and village courts, deemed to be too many.

But that number doesn't seem to have changed. "Streamlining" and "consolidation," after all, haven't occurred for taxing districts and fiefdoms, either. Among the commission's suggestions, along with improved funding, were upgrading training and certification for those administering the lower-tier courts.

"Many New Yorkers are surprised to learn that the large majority of the state’s local justices have never been to law school," the panel wrote. But at the time, it wasn’t deemed practical to require that all local judges for minor cases like traffic infractions be attorneys.

Besides, that doesn’t fit the recent pattern on Long Island, where practicing lawyers, working part time as justices, have run afoul of the judicial conduct commission.

In early April, the commission admonished a judge who presides over East Hampton Town Court and Sag Harbor Village Court for helping the campaign of a local political candidate, in what it deemed a violation of judicial ethics rules.

More centralized authority, beyond this disciplinary monitoring, doesn't seem to be a solution in a democracy we are trying to make work.

After all, the very same commission, which deplored the reality of New York having "the most archaic and bizarrely convoluted court structure in the country," also said this: "The majority of town and village justices are hardworking and experienced, are adequately dispensing justice, and are otherwise performing at an acceptable level."

Every trade has anglers, bumblers and miscreants. Electing good judges, or mayors, or trustees requires collective, community attention — which could represent a cultural reform.

In the end, any improvements are for the people of small individual domains across the Island and throughout the state to figure out.

Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.

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