In this year’s issue of New York Super Lawyers — Upstate Edition, out this September, we feature a Q&A with Albany attorney Bruce J. Wagner. A shareholder at McNamee, Lochner, Titus & Williams, Wagner chairs the firm’s Matrimonial and Family Law Department and maintains an appellate law practice. In addition to his practice, Wagner works part time as a town justice for the town of Schodack. Below is an excerpt from the interview, with additional content that didn’t fit in the print edition.
You’re a town justice for Schodack. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
It wasn’t something I was looking to do. The person that was in the position resigned and there were people that were in charge of the appointment that contacted me and said: Are you interested in this? I thought about it and said I was, and then there I was. It was in September, and then I found out within a day or two that I would have to run for election that very November, so it was sort of an intense six-week campaign. I did have opposition. That’s how it happened the first time. I was elected to my third term last year.
The experience is different because I had not, since the early days as a lawyer in the late ’80s, done a lot of criminal court work. In New York, we have town and village courts, which serve as the local criminal court where anything from a traffic ticket on up to the highest level felonies start in the local criminal court. In other words, we dispose of all of the traffic tickets. We have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, which means anything that’s punishable by one-year-or-less incarceration. We have jurisdiction to handle the entire case, sentencing. On the felonies, which is anything that’s more than a year of incarceration as a penalty, those cases all start in our court and we do some of the preliminary procedures–setting bail, holding preliminary hearings–we do those things while they’re pending until a grand jury takes the case and then once the grand jury takes the case it goes to a higher court. But those cases can often come back down and be reduced to misdemeanors so that we end up handling them anyway.
On the civil side, it’s a variety of small claims, not unlike what people see on television in a variety of shows such as The People’s Court and others. Landlord-tenant proceedings are brought in the local court. There are building code violations and smaller commercial claims.
That’s what a town justice does in New York. Every village has a justice and what they call an acting justice. Of about 3,400 judges in New York statewide, there are about 2,250 town and village justices; if you do the math, about two-thirds of the judges in New York are town and village judges.