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‘EYE ON THE COURTS’: Volunteers, publication serves as judicial watchdog in Ontario County

The Geneva Court Watch Coordinating Committee has recently released its summer 2019 edition of its periodic publication, “Eye on the Courts,” which celebrates its 51st issue.

Founded in 2000, the Geneva Court Watch Coordinating Committee was created as an outgrowth from the League of Women Voters of Geneva.

With assistance from Rochester’s League of Women Voters and their well-established court watching model, Geneva’s judicial watchdog group has grown and garnered recognition throughout Ontario County as a reliable and trusted presence at legal proceedings, providing invaluable information for the public about their local courtrooms and how they operate in the pursuit of justice.

With less than 10 unpaid, volunteers on-staff, the committee covers a sprawling 663 square-miles of territory.

Volunteers observe court sessions during weekdays, spending hours listening to legal proceedings and embark on journeys to courtrooms, most of which are deeply rural.

At least two-to-three times a year, the committee crafts a publication called “Eyes on the Court,” where court-watching volunteers transcribe their observations about the judicial process and evaluate the proficiency of presiding judges, as well as district and private attorneys.

Although the publication is available for public consumption, it also promotes a veil of anonymity for those who are reviewed by court-watching observers through their pin code system.

Individuals are assigned a four-digit pin number, which renders the findings and evaluations anonymous for readers, except for whomever possesses a pin number.

Whenever “Eyes on the Court” is published, the committee sends copies directly to the local offices of attorneys and judges alike; and for nearly two-decades, volunteers have never been barred from attending any court hearing, but rather welcomed with hospitality.

Before any proceeding, dockets are handed-out to those in attendance and after the session concludes, bailiffs, judges and attorneys have made themselves accessible to the local band of courtroom observers.

For new judges and attorneys that are not listed in their database, the committee assigns them a unique code and administers that information confidentially prior to publishing the next edition.

In essence, “Eye on the Courts” instills public transparency as to how the local judicial system functions, but more importantly constructs a feedback loop for judges and legal representatives to receive praise for their achievements and criticism for their shortcomings in the form of accountable public input from trained court-watchers.

Judith R. McKinney, a court-watching volunteer and emeritus associate professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges says that whenever their reports are published, she is inundated with calls by those seek to validate their pin information.

Lead organizer Leonard M. DeFrancesco considers the printing of their publication as a “unique public service.”

DeFrancesco spends an average of at least five-hours a week dedicated to the Geneva Court Watching Coordinating Committee’s cause.

“I never find it boring,” he added.

Beth Reiners, a fellow court-watching volunteer considers herself as a novice, who is still getting accustomed to the “steep learning curve” that is associated to vigilantly observing courtrooms and critically critiquing those who participate in Ontario County’s criminal justice system still takes pride in her responsibility and role as a public witness to legal proceedings within her community.

“It’s fascinating to go in and just see some of the different types of cases,” Reiners said.

But most of all, the collective firmly believes that their routine reports affect practices, protocols, procedures within the courtroom, even “critiquing and changing behavior.”

As for explaining and clarifying certain legal terminology in Geneva, McKinney shared that the court has “definitely started explaining things more clearly.”

Additionally, supplemental language guides have been made available to those on trial, especially in an effort to accommodate the city’s sizable Spanish speaking population.

Translator services outsourced from Rochester have also been offered more frequently to defendants in Geneva.

“Eye on the Courts” is available online by accessing the Geneva League of Women Voters’ website and print copies are also available to those who wish to join their mailing list.

The Geneva Court Watching Coordinating Committee is actively seeking new volunteers to continue cultivating transparency and accountability for Ontario County’s judicial system.

Those interested standing alongside DeFrancesco, McKinney, Reiners and others are strongly urged to contact Leonard M. DeFrancesco by emailing him at [email protected].

– Reporting & Photos by Gabriel Pietrorazio

An undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Pietrorazio has written for the Town Times of Watertown, Connecticut and Finger Lakes Times in Geneva, New York. He’s currently a reporter for FL1 News, and can be reached at [email protected].