Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

On July 6, I had the privilege of being interviewed for the Rochester NBC affiliate for a program called NY Exposed:  New York’s Costly Courts. It was based on my research that showed that the New York judicial budget is the highest per capita in the country in spite of the fact that court filings have declined by nearly 1.4 million in the last ten years. In that time the budget has increased $440 million to $2.9 billion for fiscal year 2017-2018. Florida, which has 147,000 more people than New York, runs its judiciary on a tad under $539 million or $27.09 per person.  New York operates at $148.89 per person.

I have asked for many years to speak to the legislative budget committee about the judicial budget only to be told, “No thanks.” But, hey, as this was the Peacock Network, Rochester edition, the Office of Court Administration had to explain why it costs an extra $440 million to handle 1.4 million fewer cases. Their response? “Our budget is 90% salaries and benefits.” Well, yeah, but whose fault is that?  Any guesses?

Way back in 2007, the annual report of the chief administrative judge lamented the poor underpaid New York judges writing, “a landmark study issued by the National Center for State Courts in May conclud[ed] that New York’s judges are severely underpaid when compared to jurists nationwide as well as other professionals in significant public positions.” Severely underpaid indeed. So they created a committee and did a study of cost of living including New York City and passed the biggest pay hike you can imagine. New York is now only behind Hawaii in how much it pays its judges and the judges in Malone and other upstate districts get paid far more than the average attorney in their counties.

So, the Office of Court Administration laments the budget being 90% salaries and benefits because that’s what they fought for and the legislature said, “Sure, why not?” Just to put this in perspective, a Family Court judge had a base salary of $136,700 plus benefits in 2010 and now gets a base pay of $183,200. Nice. A one third increase in seven years. The median salary of an Albany lawyer in 2018 is $94,252. Rensselaer County is $72,262 and I’m guessing the health insurance and other benefits of the judiciary are somewhat better.

When NBC wanted a local comment on all this, they turned to retired Fourth Department Justice Joseph Valentino who said, “The New York Criminal Justice System is one of the best if not the best in the United States.  If it costs money, that money is well spent.”  Well, I haven’t been able to find any statistics to support Judge Valentino’s opinion, but it would be hard to believe that New York’s Criminal Justice System is five times better than Florida’s.  Want to know what Judge Valentino earned in 2010?  $136,700.  When he retired in 2015, he earned $183,200.

Of course this is not all the fault of the OCA as the ultimate job of spending taxpayer money is held by the New York State Legislature and the legislators are pretty good at doling out more than they take in.   If you want to know how they treat the public’s money you only need to listen to John Bonacic.  He is the chairman of the New York Senate Judiciary Committee.  He’s held that post since 2011 and he is retiring this year.  He just approved eight new judges of the Court of Claims.  Their rate of pay is $194,900, but why?  There were only 1,816 Court of Claims cases filed in 2017 and there are now 41 of these judges.  That’s only 58 cases per year per judge and that’s why many of them are acting Supreme Court justices.  There just isn’t that much to do in the Court of Claims.  We don’t need these guys.

In 2014, at the request of OCA the Legislature approved 25 new Family Court judges who now have a base pay of $194,900.  From 2010 until 2017, the Family Court filings decreased every year.  2017 had over 100,000 fewer Family Court filings than 2010, a decline of over 15%.  So why do we need all those new Family Court and Court of Claims judges?  So you can tell NBC that 90% of the budget is “salaries and benefits”?

In an interview with the New York Law Journal ten days after the Rochester NBC program, Senator Bonacic said that “a future state legislature should approve more judges statewide to reduce backlog in the state court system.” Really? Thanks for your thoughts on the way out the door senator, but I humbly disagree as do the facts.

Michael Friedman is the past president of the Albany County Bar Association. He practiced family law in Albany County from 1977 to 2015.