Clifton Park Town Justices James F. Hughes and Robert A. Rybak see themselves as judges, certainly, but they also believe they hold a much more important title: caretaker.
I think it’s important to recognize we are really caretakers of the office. Sooner or later, we’ll be replaced and I like to think just as people added to the court before us, Jim and I are doing the same, said Rybak.
Hughes and Rybak take their role of caretaker so seriously that they decided to find a way to help the public understand just how important that role is, and to remember (or learn for the first time) the history that shaped what being a town justice means today.
To do that, they recruited Town Historian John Scherer and the town clerk and got to work discovering, organizing and compiling a history of the Clifton Park Town Court.
`A lot of what we do is based upon our predessessors and it’s interesting to find how many folks served as town justices, when, how many years,` said Rybak. `Basically, we recognize that they’re part of the court and are trying to figure out where our history was. It’s similar to what a family trying to find out who their ancestors are.`
The simple goal was to discover what the jobs before them entailed, who held them and what types of cases did the court handle in the past.
`The more we looked into it, we found the cases we’re hearing today weren’t much different than back in the 1800s. By and large, they were handling community disputes between neighbors,` said Rybak. `Vehicle and traffic cases are about 60 percent of our caseload, 20 percent is probably criminal and 20 percent is civil we handle around 10,000 cases a year between both judges.`
Clifton Park Town Court changed slightly throughout the years, said Rybak. Judges used to be called justice of the peace and could serve on the town board until the legislature made a constitutional amendment saying they should be `above politics and not get their hands dirty` in 1964 along with the name change. The 1800s is when justices were first elected by the people (John Clute was elected in 1830) and prior to that, they were appointed by municipal officials. Other historical highlights they discovered were that the 70 years old age limit was eliminated in 1894 and Judge Henry Ruhe was the longest tenure judge, serving 32 years by 1959.
`Unfortunately, or fortunately, this is the first time it’s been put together like this. There were some gaps in the history we were able to figure out with John Scherer,` said Rybak. `We thought it would be interesting to bring it together so when folks come to court, they can get an idea of who served before us. A lot of the names you see on various town facilities and roads.`
According to information compiled by Scherer, in the mid-1800s disputes were often resolved by the justice of the peace at his home, and when a case went to trial, it was held at the Inn of Isaac Rogers or the Tavern of Samuel Groom, both public buildings being restored.
One story Scherer uncovered was a record from about 1860 that details a Vischer Ferry man who visited a neighbor and forgot his coat on the back of a chair. When he returned to get it, his neighbor refused to give it to him and had decided to keep the coat until he paid her some owed money.
Right now, the project is mostly a list of all the judges and the years they served. What Rybak and Hughes hope to do next is find pictures to go with all the judges. Then, they plan to display the names, photos, old court records and some history in the public safety building so people have something to look at while they wait.
`People have time on their hands until their case is called and we found this would be interesting,` said Rybak.
Residents can help with the process by taking a look of the names that are posted on www.cliftonpark.org/townhall/justice _courts.asp and looking for a familiar name.
`Some judges are still alive and ideally, we’ll get a shot of every judge. Realistically, though, that probably won’t happen. There are a number of great-grandchildren still around and we’re asking them to help us out,` said Rybak.