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Village Justice Fights for Independence of the Judiciary

(Note: the following was edited for publication)

Thomas F. Liotti is an attorney in Garden City and a part-time Village Justice in Westbury for 20 years. He has published 35 decisions; more than 125 articles; law review pieces and book reviews and five books.

Liotti, 63, considers himself to be a child of the ’60s, a community, political and legal activist from that era, a Progressive who supports Warren Court decisions and dislikes most of those from the Berger, Rehnquist and Roberts’ courts.

He has tried more than 200 cases and an equal number of appeals in state and federal courts and more than 300 cases bear his name. He has testified before a special New York State Commission appointed by New York’s Chief Judge on Village and Town Courts. He was one of the few witnesses appearing before the Commission who recommended that all village and town justices be attorneys.

The law presently allows laypersons including your local barber, funeral director or gas station mechanic to be a village justice. There are about 2300 village and town justices in the state with more than 1,000 not being attorneys. In upstate New York and in Suffolk, these justices preside over misdemeanors and even felonies, pre-indictment. Liotti feels that while the State has given more money to these courts it has not resolved this fundamental problem.

“The state is in a time warp. It is as if village and town courts have been placed into Jules Verne’s time machine where they are in colonial times and still using quill pens and probably wearing wigs. It’s pretty scary up there,” said Liotti, who noted that in some of those courts state troopers act as both witnesses and prosecutors.

He has served as Past President of the Columbian Lawyers’ Association of Nassau County and was the recipient of their Writing and Distinguished Service Awards, the first trial lawyer to receive it; Past President of the Criminal Courts Bar Association of Nassau County; Past President and Life Member of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Past Chair of the New York State Bar Association Criminal Justice Section; a Life Member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; a Fellow in the American Board of Criminal Lawyers; Past Chair of the Civil Rights Committee of the Bar Association of Nassau County and former Chairman of the Board of the Nassau Lawyers Association, and the 1997 recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from Nassau County and its Human Rights Commission.

Some of his positions in government have included: 10 years as Chair of the Code Review Commission for the Incorporated Village of Westbury; General Counsel to the Wyandanch Union Free School District; Special Counsel and Fact Finder to the Town of Huntington and member of the Town of North Hempstead Councilmanic Commission. He was recently appointed by Nassau County as Special Counsel for federal litigation; municipal law and appeals. He founded the Pro Bono Publico Bar Association, Inc. in 2009.

In 2004 Liotti wrote the longest decision ever published by a Village or Town Justice in New York State, 109 pages with something he called “probable cause plus guidelines.” He suppressed evidence in the case taking strong issue with our immigration laws and the signing of warrants in building code cases involving alleged violations and not crimes.

His decisions have made him a hero in the Hispanic community where he has been placed on the front covers of their newspapers. Liotti has had some of his decisions translated into French, Italian and Spanish in order to be distributed in his multi-ethnic community. He has published a pamphlet which tells people not represented by counsel how to try a case in his Court. “The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that no warrant shall issue but on probable cause interpreted to mean a belief that a crime is being committed. The problem with those administrative searches is that they conflict with Constitutional provisions of illegal searches and seizures or with the right of privacy,” said Liotti.

This brought Liotti some criticism from local residents concerned about the proliferation of illegal occupancies and depreciation of property values. Said Liotti, “This is a valid point but we can still afford people their individual rights while local laws are being enforced. I do not want to see people homeless, my village sued for a violation of civil rights or the village’s building inspectors hurt or killed in executing warrants at 6 a.m. These conditions are dangerous, and not habitable and often owned by absentee slumlords.

“We treat these cases very seriously especially if someone has been previously convicted of the same violation. The fines can be as high as $10,000 per violation and most of these cases have multiple violations. I have set very high bail in some cases in order to prevent defendants from fleeing the jurisdiction.”

Liotti is accustomed to fights. Aside from his work as a defense lawyer and litigator, Liotti has had to grapple with a County Court Judge, B. Marc Mogil, who was removed from the Bench and disbarred on the basis of Liotti’s complaint. Mogil had threatened and harassed Liotti and his family. Liotti wrote a book about it entitled Judge Mojo: The True Story of One Attorney’s Fight Against Judicial Terrorism (iUniverse, 2007).

Courage, integrity, devotion to the law and insight are rare qualities among today’s attorneys and judges. Even a little court can write and stand for big law and big principles. In that sense, justice transcends from the bottom of the judicial pyramid to the top. While Liotti is at the bottom of the judicial pyramid, his decisions and actions clearly rise to the top.