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If you have been reading the 'Letters to the Editor' in the Star over the past couple of months you know that a debate has been going on about the qualifications of a town justice.  In November's election Lansing voters will choose between one candidate who has no background in law, and another who has almost two decades of experience as an attorney, teaches law at TC3's paralegal program,  and is currently a judge's court attorney.  Some argue that being a lawyer is not a requirement of elected town and justices, while others say it only makes sense to put someone with legal experience on the bench.

Interesting, the same argument applies to this year's election for County Sheriff.  While two of the candidates have impressive credentials in law enforcement, the third is an independent journalist with no legal training.  How do you make sense of this conundrum?  Do attorney judges do better than non-attorneys?  Do experienced law enforcement officers make better sheriffs?  New York says legal or law enforcement background doesn't matter when electing judges and sheriffs.  So why should it?

It should be said that neither of Lansing's current town justices come from legal backgrounds, and they are very well respected both as community members and as judges.  But it may also be said that someone who is well versed in the law and court procedures is better suited to wear judicial robes than someone who took a week-long training and some follow up courses.

New York is not alone -- over 20 states don't make being an attorney a qualification for local judges.  More than 60% of New York State's town and village judges -- that's over 1,110 out of about 1,850 judges -- are not lawyers.  And the According to New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct annual reports found that between 2005 and 2014 slightly more judges who were lawyers were disciplined than those judges who were not attorneys.

Thiinking about this it occurred to me that some folks will misunderstand and believe I am endorcing candidates, so I want to be clear and save myself some grief.  I am not saying that I think that judges should or shouldn't be lawyers or sheriffs should or shouldn't be experienced law enforcement officers.  I'm just saying that New York State doesn't think it matters, and that makes voter's responsibility harder than if it were cut and dry and you could simply compare credentials and records.  For the record, I do not and never have belonged to a political party, and I have voted for candidates of different parties in the past.
As for elected sheriffs, Peter Meskill did not come from a law enforcement background, but was respected as Sheriff.  My understanding is that he was elected at a time when the organization of the Sheriff's Department really needed someone who could make it work more efficiently, and he was the right man for the job at the time.  Once that was sorted out voters decided they wanted a sheriff with police experience.  Voters weren't being fickle.  Circumstances changed.

So you don't have to be a cop to be a Sheriff.  You just have to not be a felon and take a forty hour 'basic new sheriff training course' on how to be a sheriff that is sponsored by the New York State Sheriffs’ Association.

Surely deputies like one of their own in the top seat, and possibly prosecutors and defense attorneys feel the same way.  But the fact is that State law says it doesn't matter.  Which means that unless the laws governing judge and sheriff qualifications are changed, it actually doesn't matter.

That leaves voters to decide who is the best person for the job.  Not the best qualified person.  The best person.  What are that person's values?  What is their candidate platform?  Which person would do the best job for the community?  And how does that person's experience enhance their value as sheriff or judge?

That doesn't make it easy for voters.  The best possible scenario would be that an upstanding member of the community also has professional qualifications that makes him or her an indisputable best choice.

I suppose if life were that simple we'd all be rich and happy.  Since we're not, we'll have to pay attention, learn as much as we can about the candidates, and make the best choice possible based on available facts.  Not party line votes that could be very damaging, especially in local elections.

To quote the great (fictional) Sergent Joe Friday, "Just the facts, ma'am."

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