Lake Placid justice resigns amid state probe
LAKE PLACID — Village Justice David Coursen has resigned with more than half of his four-year term left after a state commission began investigating a complaint that he showed bias in favor of a defendant and against a code enforcement officer, who he allegedly berated in a code enforcement case for the village.
The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct notified Coursen in January that it was investigating the complaint, as well as a claim that he’d engaged in “ex parte” communications with the defendant.
Coursen says the complaint stems from a case about one year ago. He had a case involving the village charging a local businessowner — who “of course” he knew, as he has “been serving the community for 31 years,” Coursen said — with a violation of the land use code.
Coursen alleges that the code enforcement officer submitted charges that were “written incorrectly,” and after a few court appearances, Coursen said he had the village attorney in court, along with the person who was charged and their attorney. Coursen said that the ethics complaint against him was filed by the code enforcement officer, who he says “wasn’t happy” with his decision.
Mike Orticelle, a code enforcement officer for the village of Lake Placid, confirmed that he was the code enforcement officer referenced in the claim but declined to comment on the case.
Coursen chose to resign on Jan. 24 in the face of the allegations rather than continue with court proceedings with the commission, according to the court documents. Coursen added Tuesday that he decided to resign during the proceedings because he felt “no one was listening to the reasoning (he) made for the case.” Coursen, who is not an attorney, represented himself in the case.
“I don’t regret that decision in court and I stand behind it,” Coursen told the Enterprise Tuesday.
Coursen’s resignation was effective immediately, and he affirmed that he’d never seek or accept a judicial position at any time in the future.
“I did my time, I served my community, and I’m not doing it anymore,” he said Tuesday. “I’ll find some other way to serve Lake Placid.”
The village Board of Trustees formally accepted Coursen’s resignation during the village’s regular board meeting on Monday. His departure has prompted a search for a new justice to finish his term and revived conversations about dissolving the village’s court system.
The town of North Elba and the village of Lake Placid have two separate court systems. While Coursen was the sole justice in Lake Placid, the town has two justices — Dean Dietrich and Alec Friedmann. Dietrich is the “backup” village justice; if Coursen couldn’t make it to court, Dietrich would take on the case.
Without a village justice, all of the village’s court cases will now fall to Dietrich, according to the village board. To account for Dietrich’s increased workload, the village board voted to increase Dietrich’s salary, which is set at $166.67 per month, to $723 per month — the salary Coursen was receiving upon his resignation. Dietrich only got paid by the village on months when he worked for Coursen, according to village Treasurer Mindy Goddeau.
According to municipal law, it’s now up to village Mayor Art Devlin to appoint a new justice to finish Coursen’s term, which was set to end in April 2025. As the village board mulled the process for finding a new justice on Monday, conversations about dissolving the village court — a proposal that has gone before voters in a permissive referendum twice since 2016, and was shot down both times — resurfaced.
Coursen was first appointed as justice in 2019, when he stepped in to serve the remainder of former Justice David Chapman’s term after he resigned. Coursen was then elected to a full four-year term in March 2021.
In his resignation letter, he said it’s been an “honor” to serve as justice and in other capacities in the village over the last 31 years. Coursen spent two decades with the Lake Placid Police Department and, after his retirement, served as a part-time driver for the fire department and bus driver for the Lake Placid Central School District before becoming justice.
Village Clerk Anita Estling said it’s too close to the upcoming March election to accept petitions for justice candidates and place the seat on the ballot, which is why Devlin is now tasked with appointing a temporary justice. The village expects to put the justice seat on a special election ballot in March 2024.
Devlin said he has a few candidates in mind to finish the remainder of Coursen’s term, but none of them have confirmed that they want to serve. The prospective justice would have to live in Essex County and would be required to complete a five-day “Taking the Bench” certification course, according to Devlin, which he said would next be held in April.
Devlin said anyone interested in serving as the interim village justice can contact Estling at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As village board members talked about the process of filling Coursen’s seat on Monday, Trustee Peter Holderied brought up the prospect of dissolving the village’s court system.
The first time the village put the question to voters of whether to dissolve their court and transfer cases to the town of North Elba court was in the summer of 2016. Bill Hulshoff, the village justice at the time and an opponent of the court’s dissolution, circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the question after the village board voted unanimously to abolish its remaining justice position earlier that year — the last step in a dissolution process of the village court system that began in 2015. Voters shot down the dissolution, 104 to 72. The second time it was put on the ballot, with Hulshoff again a vocal opponent of dissolution, the proposal to dissolve the village’s court was defeated by a vote of 132 to 114.
Though the village board discussed at length the logistics of dissolving the village court on Monday — including the costs of concentrating court cases and justices in North Elba, the benefits and downfalls of disbanding the village court, and the transfer of certain village fines and fees to the town — Devlin said he ultimately wouldn’t want a proposal for dissolution to come from the village board again. Devlin was serving as a village trustee for both of the past permissive referendums.
“I’m not opposed (to dissolving the court), but I just made a commitment after the last two times …. that the request is going to have to come from someone else other than the board, in my opinion,” Devlin said.
After Holderied first brought up the idea of bringing dissolution to voters once more, Devlin told Holderied he could propose the dissolution as a village resident once his term ends in March.
Lake Placid isn’t the only village to have considered court dissolution. The village of Saranac Lake court took its last case on March 17, 2014, after its Board of Trustees voted in 2010 to kick-start the dissolution process. When that dissolution was finalized, cases were directed to the courts of the three towns in the village: Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand.