“A billion here, a billion there—sooner or later it adds up to real money.” Senator Everett Dirksen (1896-1969)
On Dec. 1, 2017, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks published his 188 page “New York State Unified Court System Budget, Fiscal Year 2018-2019.” The opening page states, “The 2018-2019 State Operating Funds Budget request totals $2.23 Billion.” Chief Judge DiFiore certified that “the attached schedules are the itemized estimates of the Financial Needs of the Judiciary for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2018.” Except that is not the cost of New York’s Judiciary. This March Judge Marks published the Unified Court System Annual Report as required by the New York Constitution. He wrote, “Appropriations of $2.96 billion were approved for the State Judiciary for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.” So what about that extra $730 million? The trick is in the term State Operating Funds which obviously doesn’t include all the sources of court funding. This happens every year, and the budget submitted in December never mentions the actual money spent by the Judiciary.
So, what do the citizens of New York receive for all that money? As with other years, the Chief Administrative Judge has pages of charts and citations to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Chief Judge’s “Excellence Initiative” in reducing court backlogs and improving efficiency. As Judge Marks states, “Under the Excellence Initiative, the New York Courts have dramatically improved their performance.” Except that isn’t true.
Although it is never mentioned, the court system is reducing backlogs because there are fewer and fewer cases filed every year. Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped the Judiciary from asking for and receiving more and more money every year. Here are the real statistics. In 2008 there were 4,671,265 filings. In 2017 there were 3,271,686 filings and as with other years it includes parking tickets. That’s a drop of 1,399,579 cases per year or 29.9%. That’s the reason why the caseloads have gone down. In 2008, the budget was $2.52 Billion, 18% less that what it now costs to handle nearly 1.4 million fewer cases. This is not just a one year phenomenon as there has been a decline in filings every year since 2008.
If you want to put this in perspective, Florida has about 147,000 more people than New York. Their court system budget for 2018-2019 is a tad under $539 million or $27.09 per person. California has 19 million more people than New York. Their court system budget for 2018-2019 is $4.2 billion or $108 per person. Unlike New York’s projected $4.4 billion deficit, California will have a more than $9 billion surplus in 2018. The United States Judiciary operates at 2.2¢ per citizen. New York operates at $148.89 per person. That is by far the most expensive per capita court system in the United States, and possibly the most expensive in the world. Maybe someday the Legislature will take a look at the actual costs for the sake of New York’s citizens and maybe ask why it costs $440 million more per year to handle 1.4 million fewer cases.
Michael Friedman is the past president of the Albany County Bar Association. He practiced family law in Albany County from 1977 to 2015.