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December/1/2011

The Excercise of Judicial Discretion to Reach Just Results in the Day to Day Cases Heard by a City Court Judge By Hon. Helena Heath-Roland

Click here for the full article from the  December 2011 Newsletter 

The Exercise of Judicial Discretion to Reach Just Results in the Day to Day Cases Heard by a City Court Judge

By Hon. Helena Heath-Roland, Albany City Court

Judges may often find themselves rendering decisions based upon a clear cut legal framework, that is to say where established legal rules exist and the principle of stare decisis for case law precedents neatly applies to the facts and issues involved in the particular case.  The more challenging situation, however, arises when there is not either an established or clear set of legal rules applicable to the subject facts or where a judge’s decision is to be based on, for instance, a range of decision making options (e.g., a statutory range for the imposition of a monetary fine or criminal sentence).  Under those circumstances, legal standards and principles are relied upon to provide guidance for the judge’s decision, but do not dictate the exact or mathematical outcome of the case.  Rather, judicial discretion comes into play to determine what justice demands on a case by case basis after considering such factors as mitigating circumstances, the defendant’s criminal history, driving record, compliance or failure to comply with prior court orders and directives, etc. 

 

My research of website articles on judicial discretion revealed a large number of articles written about the exercise of discretion in criminal sentencing and in the use of federal sentencing guidelines.  Of the other articles I found, one provided a general statement that judges, charged with the mandate to administer justice fairly and equitably, have discretion to pursue any lawful course. “In both criminal and civil cases, and regarding matters profound and trivial, the exercise of discretion is a core judicial function.”1  The author summed up judicial discretion as follows:

“The adversarial process encourages litigants to take extreme positions, and judges may be generally or somewhat persuaded by an advocate’s argument in support of a motion yet prefer some intermediate or compromise position. By conferring discretionary authority, the judicial system entrusts judges with the authority to make sound and informed judgments about the relative merits of all the various lawful courses of action that fall within the frame of possibilities.” 2

As a City Court Judge handling a busy daily docket of cases involving civil, criminal, and traffic matters, I set out to write this article after giving serious thought to what are some of the most significant, daily decisions I render requiring the exercise of discretion to reach a fair and just result. I highlight the following situations as examples of such judicial decision making:

I.  Driver’s License Suspensions –

Should a motorist who has had his/her license suspended be allowed to have the suspension lifted prior to the adjudication of the underlying traffic ticket?


 

When sitting in the Traffic Part of my Court, I regularly order a person’s license suspended due to the fact that the motorist failed to appear at a trial date. As a matter of practice, not law, a monthly suspension calendar is held giving motorists an opportunity to be seen by the Judge and explain the circumstances surrounding the missed trial date that had led to a suspension going into effect. In the exercise of judicial discretion, I make a choice to either lift the suspension prior to the resolution of the underlying traffic ticket/s or not to lift until after the ticket is adjudicated through either the plea negotiations or trial process.  I certainly could employ a bright line rule rather than exercise discretion in this situation, but given the many different factual scenarios that may arise resulting in a missed trial date, in my view it is appropriate and fair for the Court to provide an opportunity for a motorist to be heard and explain the background circumstances.

If you were the decision maker, would you consider as reasonable the explanation that on the morning of the missed trial date the motorist or his/her family member had a medical emergency and the motorist had to go straight to the hospital? If so, then based upon a good cause reason determination for the absence, that motorist’s suspension would be lifted prior to the ticket’s adjudication.  How about if a motorist had missed one or two prior trials in the recent past for the same ticket and the only explanation provided for this last missed trial is that he or she just forgot about the date or got mixed up and thought the trial was the following week? Clearly a less sympathetic explanation and one that can reasonably be viewed as showing disrespect for the Court process and a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the matter at hand.  With discretionary decision making, there is often a range of explanations and factual situations to consider and many close cases to weigh in the interest of reaching a just decision.

II.  Execution of the Warrant of Eviction for Residential Property -

Should the failure to pay attorney’s fees be an allowable basis to evict a tenant when the tenant has paid the back rent and all other related rental fees owed pursuant to a settlement agreement reached in court?

Non payment of rent is a common legal basis upon which a landlord commences an eviction proceeding against a tenant in the Civil Part of my Court.  There is clear statutory authority to evict upon a tenant’s failure to pay rent.  Through settlement negotiations, parties often enter into an agreement in Court whereby the tenant is to pay the back rent owed by a date certain.  The consequence of not paying rent by that agreed upon date is the execution of a Warrant of Eviction, which provides the landlord with the legal authority and right to repossess the leased property.  When issuing the Warrant, the Judge determines how much money is owed to the landlord in back rent as well as other fees and costs.  Attorney’s fees are often awarded to the landlord in eviction proceedings.


 

No clear statutory or case law authority exists requiring a court to evict a tenant upon the failure to pay the awarded attorney’s fees. If a tenant pays the back rent owed pursuant to a settlement agreement, but fails to pay the attorney’s fees during the period in which the Warrant of Eviction is stayed, should a court allow the eviction to go forward solely due to the failure to pay attorney’s fees? The practice of my Court is to not evict on this sole ground, but rather award the landlord a judgment against the tenant for the attorney’s fees owed. Landlord/Tenant cases are extremely fact sensitive and very often involve discretionary determinations.  The example posed herein, as with a determination of how many days to stay a Warrant of Eviction, highlights how significant it is for judges to soundly exercise their discretion when administrating justice in the courts, particularly at the trial court level.

FN 1     Judicial Discretion to Condition, by Thomas O. Main, University of the Pacific – McGeorge School of Law, April 5, 2006, Website: Social Science Research Network (http://www.ssrn.com/abstract=895324)

FN 2     Id.






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