The Rule of Law AWOL in Hamilton

Barry Alan Shain - Associate Professor of Political Science

Members of the Colgate community and citizens of Hamilton confront a most unexpected problem that has only of late come to the public’s attention: the limited presence of the rule of law in the Hamilton village court. My motivation for writing derives from my recent experience with the court and Colgate’s police force, my area of study, the New York Times articles by William Glaberson, a series of symposiums and New York state legislative investigations, and my fears that what I have experienced both on campus and in the village court is part of a pattern of questionable police and judicial conduct in Hamilton.

The core of the judicial problems that we confront results from our not enjoying the basic Anglo-American protection of the rule of law. This is a legal and constitutional standard in which Americans justly take great pride. It is a rare achievement and one that our eighteenth-century North American British ancestors in part inherited and in part forcefully appropriated from metropolitan Britain. In a way not always fully appreciated, seventeenth-century Englishmen achieved something remarkable in the history of all nations, peoples, and empires – they created institutional mechanisms with which to control the arbitrary actions of powerful executives and those in their service. The rule of law, then and now, is not the highest standard of justice — equity, compassion, and substantive concerns all have their place — but it is as an essential component of a just legal and political system.

What the rule of law demands is, in fact, not abstruse or esoteric. It simply insists that those who legislate and execute the law and still more importantly those who consider whether a breach in those standards has occurred, that is police, judge and juries must set and abide by standards that are publicly knowable, predictable, transparent, and applied consistently to all subject to the law’s reach. In short, the rule of law stands in contrast to the rule of men.

Just as the rule of law need not achieve the highest reaches of morality or justice, the rule of men need not be ill-intended, evil, malicious, or vicious. Nonetheless, in being dependent on the particular will of an individual or a group, the rule of men is difficult to predict, rarely consistent in application, and ultimately dependent on the capricious will of particular men. Whether benevolent or not, the rule of men is demeaning to equal human dignity even when petty in its focus.

William Glaberson, in his New York Times 15-part series (September 25, 2006 – February 28, 2007) on injustice in rural New York, makes knowledge of this problem no longer one limited to isolated individuals, but one that is being examined on a state-wide, if not national, stage. To understand why hearings have been recently held in the state Senate and others convened by the New Bar Association, and why New York state is embarrassed and finds itself compared with petty despotic third-world countries, you must read at least the first three of Mr. Glaberson’s articles (September 25, 26, and 27). For those on the Colgate campus, Lexis-Nexis can provide access to them.

Briefly, what Mr. Glaberson shows is that in New York State almost all of the justices operating outside of urban and suburban environments have had no legal training; most are high-school graduates or less; many are mean-spirited or worse; there is no record made of their proceedings, and almost all adjudicate matters coming before them without the benefit of the rule of law. In these courts, protections afforded by the United States Constitution, for example the presumption of innocence, a neutral and unbiased judge, the avoidance of collusion with the police, and frequently the right to counsel are not observed, as poorly educated men, without immediate oversight and unconstrained by a record of their proceedings, exercise power arbitrarily over the lives of others.

What concerns me in particular is that students, staff, and faculty of Colgate and residents of the Village and Town of Hamilton may have been subject, as I have been, to the abusive behavior of Colgate campus police and to the capricious conduct of the Hamilton village justice, a man not consistently constrained by the rule of law or the legal norms of the American Constitution. Although their excesses may be, in all instances, petty ones, the basic features of such a system of law enforcement and jurisprudence, even when largely benign, are bereft of the basic protections afforded by the rule of law. As surprising as it must be to read, in Hamilton, the norms of the United States Constitution are too frequently absent without leave.

I have, therefore, after much hesitation written this letter with three goals in mind. First, it is my intent to focus the attention of the Colgate community, and the residents of Hamilton on these problems, and to implore all to read Mr. Glaberson’s articles regarding the nature of justice in New York State’s rural communities.

Second, I want to build a greater sense of urgency in the Colgate administration to reconsider its involvement in this system of injustice and create pressure on the Dean of the College to separate Colgate entirely from the actions of an unaccountable local judiciary. When a Hamilton village judge publicly states to me that I am “going to screw up everything between Colgate and us” and scolds me for having complained about abusive police behavior to the Dean because it might harm the head of Colgate’s police force, when notified of this, the Dean of the College should have immediately sought to investigate what it is that the village justice had in mind. Unfortunately, the Dean seems to be either unconcerned or unwilling to confront what appears to be an entrenched network of unseemly cooperation between the village justice, local lawyers, and the campus police force that, when viewed in an ungenerous light, seems to border on a legalized means by which to shake-down affluent Colgate students.

Lastly, I hope to use this letter to explore whether my experiences with the campus police and village court were anomalous and my suspicions, thus, ill-founded. If others, though, have had similar experiences, then I would like to help facilitate the opposition of students and their parents, faculty, and local residents to the village judiciary and the Colgate administration’s support of a system in which members of the Colgate and Hamilton communities are exposed possibly to dishonest police and the arbitrary actions of a judge who conceivably may harbor ill-will against Colgate students and, possibly, others of the Colgate community.

Therefore, in order to understand better the dimension of any problems that may exist, even if hopefully they are minimal, let me ask that those who believe that they may have suffered from the abusive behavior of a Colgate campus policeman or have experienced judicial misconduct in the Hamilton village court system, that they contact me at [email protected] with their name, contact information, and a brief description of their untoward experience. Concerned parents who hadn’t realized that their sons and daughters would be exposed to this kind of unexpected risk at Colgate (which you might more readily associate with third-world polities with underdeveloped judicial institutions) are particularly invited to write. Those who simply would like to register their support for an effort to gain better community control (at present, there is none) over Colgate’s emerging police force and to distance maximally the disciplinary system from the village judiciary so that the likelihood of its students ever being treated abusively or unjustly is minimized are also encouraged to write. All written communications will be kept in the strictest confidence and, before any representation of your individual experience is made to the Dean of the College, you will be asked for permission to do so. For those readers who are residents of Hamilton or surrounding villages and not directly subject to the Colgate police force or student disciplinary system, I urge you to call, email, or write the local and state leaders listed below and express your concern and insistence that the current system of rural injustice in New York state be finally changed.

Please refer to the online version of this article for contact information for Colgate, local, and state legislative and judicial officials to reach with your concerns, experiences of untoward behavior, or your commitment to the rule of law in upstate New York.