ALBANY – New York City would have nine of 20 new Family Court judgeships under a proposal submitted by the Office of Court Administration at the request of legislative leaders.
Outside of the city, 11 of the state’s 57 counties would each get an additional judgeship under the plan. But Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks stressed that OCA’s approach is not set in stone.
“It’s not a definitive list,” he said in an email. “It’s just one suggested approach that we hope is helpful. In the end, the Legislature will need to figure out and agree on where the judgeships will go. We are optimistic that will happen before they adjourn.”
In fact, there is likely to be considerable maneuvering before a final decision is made. OCA said its list represents the counties “in greatest need” of additional judgeships, but legislators from other areas of the state would like additional judgeships.
The budget approved by the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo includes funding for up to 20 judgeships beginning Jan. 1, 2015, but separate legislation must be passed stipulating where they should be placed (NYLJ, April 1). That authorization must pass by June 30 or the appropriation will be lost.
Creation of the new judgeships would cost $5 million in the current partial fiscal year and $20 million for succeeding full years.
OCA’s list is based on a number of factors, with the greatest weight placed on filings per judge in each county. The recommendations of administrative judges in each judicial district also were considered.
Judiciary Chairwoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, an influential legislator who has long championed more Family Court judgeships, said in an interview Thursday that OCA’s breakdown between the city, suburbs and upstate seems about right, though she said she is still studying the list and could recommend changes.
She said she wanted to do an analysis, but added, “this is something we need to rely on the OCA’s judgment for.”
Weinstein said she wants to ensure that the judgeships are approved in time to select candidates in upstate counties where judges are elected. Family Court judges in New York City are appointed by the mayor.
Candidates can begin collecting signatures on May 29 of this year, and nominating petitions must be filed with the Board of Elections no later than July 10.
“The clock is ticking on the political calendar,” said Weinstein, who is aiming for passage of the legislation within the next few weeks. “We do want to get it right, but we want to make sure that the judges can get elected in this election cycle.”
If the OCA’s recommendations are adopted, the nine new judgeships in New York City would represent a 19 percent increase. The last time Family Court judgeships were added in the city was in 1991.
Facing a heavy caseload, administrators have been tapping judges from other courts to sit in New York City Family Court, where there are 59 sitting judges.
Statewide, the additional 20 judgeships would be a 13 percent Family Court increase over the 153 currently authorized.
According to court statistics, Family Court filings have grown to 700,000 annually, an increase of 90 percent over the past 30 years. But no new Family Court judges have been added statewide since one was created in Orange County in 2005.
Pressure to add new judges has been building since 2007, when former chief judge Judith Kaye said 39 new judges were needed statewide.
OCA says an additional 20 judgeships are needed statewide but has confined its list due to “financial constraints.”
Meanwhile, some individual legislators have bills to stake a claim on new judgeships in their communities. They include S6843 (increasing the number of Family Court judges in Monroe County from six to eight), S7298 (increasing Erie County Family Court judges from six to eight) and S3899 (increasing Chautauqua County Family Court judges from one to two).
OCA’s proposal would give Erie and Monroe counties one each of the two additional judgeships they seek. Chautauqua County would get the one it seeks.
Little said she introduced her bills to remind legislative leaders and the governor that pressures on Family Court aren’t limited to urban centers.
“It is to state the need and to make the case,” Little said. “Of course, the courts are not going to fall apart [without new judges]. They will continue working, but they will continue to have delays and the people who get caught in those delays are going through very difficult times.”
Little provided a letter from Warren County’s Family Court Judge, J. Timothy Breen, in which he said his court’s workload has seen a 60 percent increase in appearances and a 30 percent rise in petitions filed over the past 20 years.
“The families and children of Warren County who are in crisis deserve no less than other counties in New York state, and now is the time to amend the Judiciary Law and to secure a second Family Court judgeship in Warren County,” Breen wrote.
Weinstein said she welcomed the discussion about location.
“It is kind of amazing that I am having a discussion as to where we should put the judges, instead of having to explain why another year has gone by where we have not been successful in creating new judges for the Family Court,” she said.