Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti defends the Judiciary's $1.81 billion budget request at a legislative hearing in Albany on Wednesday.
Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti defends the Judiciary’s $1.81 billion budget request at a legislative hearing in Albany on Wednesday. (Tim Roske)

ALBANY – Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile) brought her “road to recovery” budget pitch to a legislative hearing Wednesday, and lawmakers offered hope that the court system would get its 2.5 percent increase despite the governor’s reluctance.

See Prudenti’s written testimony.

Right away, Senator John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, noted that the Judiciary has absorbed $15 million in civil legal service expenses that were once covered in other budgets. Some 90 minutes later, toward the end of the Joint Budget Hearing, Senator Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, and Senator Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, suggested that the Judiciary didn’t ask for enough.

In between, lawmakers expressed support for the Office of Court Administration’s $1.81 billion proposal, especially its plan to add 20 new Family Court judgeships.

The closest the spending plan came to criticism was when Assemblyman Phillip Steck, D-Albany, read from an article a local attorney wrote for the Albany County Bar Association newsletter in December.

In the article, Michael Friedman of Friedman & Molensek asked why OCA needs a budget increase. According to Friedman, the number of filings in the civil courts has decreased every year since 2008. Friedman also questioned the need for specialized courts, such asj the Human Tracking Court and Mental Health Court.

Prudenti highlighted the burdens the courts have endured: Five years of essentially flat budgets. Forced layoffs that left the court system with 1,900 fewer employees than five ago and the lowest staffing levels in a decade. Courtrooms that close at 4:30 p.m. so workers can leave by 5 p.m. and not racking up overtime.

The proposed 2014-2015 budget request seeks an increase of $44.2 million or 2.5 percent.

“This is not a wish-list budget,” Prudenti said. “I call it a road to recovery budget.”

The proposed budget allows the Judiciary to end its long hiring freeze and replace employees who retire or resign. It provides an additional $15 million for civil legal services as well as funding to implement statutorily-required indigent criminal defense standards. And it includes funds for contractual pay raises as well as the third phase of a judicial pay hike.

Although the Judiciary is seeking 20 additional Family Court judgeships, reflecting the fact that Family Court filings have jumped 90 percent in the past 30 years while the number of judicial positions has increased less than 9 percent, the budget does not include funding for those posts. If the judgeships are created by the Legislature, the Judiciary would need a supplemental appropriation of approximately $5 million for the first quarter of 2015.

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently criticized the Judiciary budget proposal and said the increase should not exceed 2 percent (NYLJ, Jan. 22). Prudenti said that would require cutting $9 million from the request, and it would mean that the court system would be unable to fill a number of positions, including court security posts.

Prudenti and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman have argued that the court system, after five years in which it absorbed additional costs without an increase in funding, is at a point where direct services are in jeopardy.

“It is about families and children in crisis, victims of domestic violence, the elderly, the infirm, the injured, while never losing sight of the public safety of our community,” Prudenti told lawmakers. “As the chief judge constantly reminds us, the courts are emergency rooms. Emergency rooms must stay open. We need your support and this budget to fulfill this mission.”

Krueger, the senator from Manhattan, noted that the Judiciary has absorbed more than $300 million in costs in recent years while weathering a $170 million budget cut three years ago.

In other testimony Wednesday, Robert Tembeckjian, the administrator for the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said he is asking for an increase in his agency’s budget of $270,000 to $5.654 million. The increase, the first in six years in the commission’s budget, would be used to fill two staff vacancies and meet contractual mandates, Tembeckjian said.

The executive budget proposes keeping the commission’s spending level at $5.384 million for another year.

Holding the line on budgets for five years has resulted in a reduction in full-time staffers from 55 to 46, Tembeckjian said, and a “slowdown in our processing and disposing of complaints.”