New York state Senate chamber New York state Senate chamber. Photo Credit: Westpoint/CC

The state budget approved by lawmakers in Albany earlier this week included the entire proposed spending increase for the state’s court system from the Office of Court Administration, and a nearly 6 percent increase in funding for the state Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The funding boost for the judicial watchdog is especially significant; the commission has rarely received a spending increase over the past decade and lawmakers were split in early March on whether to approve the request.

Commission Administrator Robert Tembeckjian had formally asked lawmakers, at the start of this year’s legislative session, to approve a $359,000 funding increase over their previous budget of about $5.7 million. In the end, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature allocated $330,000 in additional funding for the panel.

“We deeply appreciate this financial boost, which is critically important to a small agency such as ours,” Tembeckjian said. “It should stem the attrition that has plagued us in recent years and help us to manage our growing caseload more efficiently, to the benefit of all.”

The money will be used, essentially, to expedite the amount of time it takes the commission to dispose of cases and eliminate its ever-growing backlog. The Commission on Judicial Conduct, which is enshrined in the state constitution, is the only entity in the state responsible for disciplining the state’s judges over allegations of misconduct.

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, was one of a handful of lawmakers that led the charge to provide more funding for the commission. Hoylman, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was convinced to support the request by Tembeckjian’s testimony during a hearing on the state budget in January.

“I’m thrilled. It was a priority of mine, personally, as the judiciary chair, and I was compelled by the argument made by the commission administrator during the budget hearing and in personal meetings that the commission was really only able to undertake a small fraction of the complaints before them,” Hoylman said. “Nothing is more important than the public believing in the integrity of the court system, so this money will go a long way toward addressing that caseload of complaints.”

Tembeckjian told lawmakers earlier this year they were planning to use those funds to hire more staff at the commission and pay for transcription services, the lack of which has created a huge lag in cases being disposed. Staff at the commission currently have to transcribe proceedings on their own, which can take awhile given the breadth of the panel’s work—the commission produces about 12,000 pages of testimony each year.

That’s compounded by the fact that the number of complaints received by the commission has increased by about 25 percent in the last decade while staffing has been cut by the same amount during that time. There are currently 38 full-time employees at the commission—down from an all-time high of 51 in 2007.

Tembeckjian said in January that they’ve consistently asked the Legislature for a funding increase over the last decade, but have only been granted one a handful of times. Cuomo has kept funding for the panel flat in each of his executive budget proposals since he took office. The total funding for the commission has increased from $5.4 million in 2010 to $5.7 million over the last fiscal year.

Funding for the Office of Court Administration and the state’s courts will increase by about 2 percent, the amount requested by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks this year. They were asking for $45 million in additional state operating funds and $24 million in capital funds, or infrastructure spending, to bring the court system’s total budget to more than $2.33 billion.

The final budget approved by lawmakers early Monday morning, after a marathon overnight session, included the funding proposal in its entirety—and then some.

The Queens District Attorney’s Office had given OCA more than $1.67 million from its asset forfeiture funds to upgrade 19 courtrooms in the criminal term of Queens Supreme Court. Those funds were added to the total budget approved by lawmakers for OCA.

“We are grateful to both the governor and Legislature of their unwavering support, during this year’s budget process, of the Judiciary’s fiscal needs,” said Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for OCA.

The vast majority of that funding, according to Marks in January, will be used to reduce court backlog, and finance staffing and salary increases. Those salary increases had been previously negotiated with the various unions that represent employees in the state court system. OCA also has several initiatives planned over the next year to continue lowering backlog, particularly among criminal courts in New York City.

OCA is expanding the Special Term Additional Resources Trial Team, known by its acronym START, in Manhattan this month to dispose of some of the borough’s oldest pending criminal cases, for example. That program already led to the resolution of some of the oldest cases in the Bronx earlier this year. The initiative is led by Judge Barry Warhit, the supervising judge of the criminal courts for the Ninth Judicial District.

The state budget also allocated $200 million for the continued implementation of the Raise the Age program, aimed at sending most criminal cases against minors to family court, rather than criminal court, after October of this year. The first phase, which only affected 16-year-olds, started last October.

That money will be used to reimburse localities on the expected costs of the program, including additional court operational costs. OCA, so far, hasn’t requested that the Legislature approve any additional family court judges as a result of the program, but Marks has said that may change when the initiative is fully phased in.

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