An unspecified number of lower court judges who were designated acting Supreme Court justices will be returned to the lower court, losing the title and salary of the higher post as the Office of Court Administration embarks on an effort to weed out judges who are technically ineligible for or not needed in Supreme Court, said Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile).

Prudenti said officials will strictly enforce a rule that allows only county-level or equivalent judges with two years of experience to serve as acting Supreme Court justices. Additionally, she said acting justices who are not “doing significant Supreme Court” work will be sent back to a lower court, typically County Court, Family Court or Surrogate’s Court.

The new protocol does not affect appointed Court of Claims judges who serve as statutorily designated acting Supreme Court justices without any boost in salary, Prudenti said.

“This is an ongoing effort to really re-address our concerns during the difficult financial times that we are living in,” Prudenti said in an interview. “We are strictly enforcing our two-year rule throughout the state, inside and outside the City of New York.”

Cutting down on the number of acting Supreme Court justices would save money since those designated to the positions are entitled to the same salary as the Supreme Court judges, and their clerks are also paid at a higher rate.

There are 328 justices elected to Supreme Court. Currently there are 329 acting Supreme Court justices, including 148 inside the City of New York and 181 upstate and on Long Island but not including Court of Claims judges who preside in Supreme Court, according to First Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks (See Profile).

About two-thirds of the approximately 80 Court of Claims judges serve as statutorily designated acting Supreme Court justices and will not be affected by the change, Marks said. Twenty-eight Court of Claims judges sit as acting Supreme Court judges in New York City, and 27 throughout the rest of the state.

Court of Claims judges and Supreme Court justices draw the same $160,000 annual salary.

Prudenti said she has directed the deputy chief administrative judges, Fern Fisher (See Profile) and Michael Coccoma (See Profile), to head a committee that will develop practices and protocols for the appointment of acting Supreme Court justices. The new policies, and recommendations on which positions should be eliminated, are expected by the end of the month.

“It is not automatic that you become an acting Supreme Court judge and if you are not doing a significant amount of Supreme Court work you shouldn’t have that status,” Prudenti said.

Lower court judges have for years grumbled that the acting Supreme Court designations are doled out as a reward to favored or connected judges, with the assignments sometimes bearing little apparent relationship to ability or need.

So far, only two acting Supreme Court justices—Albany County Surrogate Cathryn Doyle (See Profile) and Rensselaer County Family Court Judge Catherine Cholakis (See Profile)—have been returned to a lower court, but more reassignments are expected after Coccoma and Fisher complete their review, Prudenti said.

Doyle served only part-time in Supreme Court, handling four trial terms last year in Columbia County.

“I only had four terms in Supreme. To me it is not a tremendous financial difference, but I know that for some judges who were full time it is quite a kick in the teeth,” Doyle said.

Cholakis had been a full-time acting Supreme Court justice for a decade and was in charge of the integrated domestic violence court, which is based in the Rensselaer County Family Court. The integrated court was created so that one judge could handle the various criminal, family and matrimonial issues that arise.

Albany County Family Court Judge Margaret Walsh (See Profile) has been appointed to the acting Supreme Court position that was taken away from Cholakis.

It is unclear why Cholakis was removed from the acting justice post and her tasks were re-assigned to a newly designated acting justice.

Cholakis declined to comment. Third Department Administrative Judge George Ceresia (See Profile) was unavailable for comment.

@|John Caher can be contacted at jcaher@alm.com.