January 11, 2014
Judge targets drugs, domestic violence
When asked what challenges new City Judge Elizabeth Burns thought she would face in her post, she had a ready answer.
“If you’re talking crime, I think the answer is obvious — it’s drugs,” said Burns, the first woman to hold the post.
Burns said she was open to any suggestions on how City Court can help with the drug problem, calling the drug court started by her predecessor, Judge Thomas Meldrim, in 2004 a “great idea.”
Meldrim was obliged to retire from his post last month due to a state law that prevents him from serving past the age of 70.
But while Burns said that the city needs a strong drug court, she added that it is not appropriate for all defendants.
“It all depends on the situation,” she said. “If you can solve the underlying problem then you can hopefully prevent future crime.”
That’s the approach Burns plans to take with another challenge she said she expects to face: increasing domestic violence.
Burns said her goal is to create a city court that only deals with domestic violence issues, in a similar way drug court operates already.
“We’re determined to do this,” Burns said.
The planned domestic violence court would differ than the drug court in some ways, Burns said.
In drug court, defendants are sent to court where the Cortland County District Attorney’s Office, Probation Department, Public Defender’s Office, counselors and the treatment court coordinator work together to help him or her get and stay sober instead of being sent to jail.
The court includes regular and random drug and alcohol testing, weekly counseling and inpatient treatment as needed. To graduate from court, a person must have been sober for 365 days.
But unlike drug court, the domestic violence court would deal mostly with convicted offenders, Burns said. The offenders would have to report periodically to the judge instead of simply reporting to a probation officer or being released on a conditional discharge as part of sentencing, she said.
“I want to make sure there’s compliance with the order of protection, that the victim is still safe,” Burns said. “Drug court does show that if a person is monitored, they do comply.”
But while Burns expects to be challenged in City Court, she says her time as a part-time city judge has prepared her.
“Because I did it for 12 years part-time, that is a huge help to me,” Burns said, adding that she was very fortunate to work with Meldrim. “He was like a mentor to me.”
In fact, it’s the difficult parts of court that attract Burns to the post.
“I’ve always liked City Court because it’s a challenge,” Burns said.
The court is fast-paced and a judge can be called out at 12 a.m., she said.
There is also a great variety of issues that come before the court — everything from criminal to civil, small claims and landlord disputes.
“And they can be challenging,” Burns said of the different cases. “These can be issues that affect people’s lives.”
Mayor Brian Tobin said he was confident of Burns’ abilities as city judge.
“I’m sure she’ll do a wonderful job for the city and for her constituents,” Tobin said. “I’ve heard a lot of good thing about her and she has a strong interest in our community and she’s passionate about what she does and she’s willing to be fair, but firm.”
Burns said that she was looking forward to making a difference in her community as judge.
“But at the end of the day, I hope people feel that they’ve been treated fairly, that they’ve gotten equal justice in our court system,” she said.
A Cortland native, Burns attended Tompkins Cortland Community College for a year after she graduated high school in 1979.
But then she quit school for five years as she tried to figure out what she wanted to do for a career.
“I wanted something that was going to be challenging,” Burns said. “There’s absolutely nothing boring about being a lawyer.”
That’s what appealed to Burns about being a lawyer, as well as the opportunity to help people.
“That’s why I started in legal services,” she said, referring to her first job in legal aid in Binghamton after she graduated from SUNY Buffalo with her law degree. She began practicing in 1992.
After working in private practice, Burns was appointed to be a part-time city judge in 1998, 2001 and 2007. She also worked as the assistant Cortland County attorney from 2006 to 2010.
Burns worked as special counsel to the administrative judge for the Sixth Judicial District’s Binghamton office, where she assisted local courts throughout 10 counties, including Supreme, County and Family court justices.
“I pretty much knew that I was going to run when Judge Meldrim retired,” Burns said.
Burns said there was no way she would ever have run against Meldrim.
“I think a lot of Judge Meldrim,” she said of the former judge who could not be reached for comment. “I have the greatest respect for him.”
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