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staten-island-courtroom An empty courtroom in the Staten Island courthouse. Photo: Rick Kopstein/ALM

New York State is grappling with a massive $300 million budget cut to its court system caused by the sudden and unexpected arrival of COVID-19 in March. As a result, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and state court leaders have been forced to make hard choices in order to absorb this enormous and unprecedented cut, including adopting a strict hiring freeze, deferring raises and suspending countless programs. And as a last resort, they also declined to extend the judicial service of 46 retired trial and appellate judges who applied for approval to stay on the bench beyond their expired terms of service (this form of additional service is made permissible under New York’s constitution). The Chief Judge indicated that this decision was made with the greatest reluctance in order to save tens of millions of dollars and position the court system to avoid laying off over 300 employees.

As someone who was integrally involved in preparing the court system’s annual budget requests for two decades, I can confirm that it’s simply impossible for the courts to absorb such deep funding cuts without shrinking its workforce. Unlike Executive Branch agencies, courts have few discretionary programs and very little spending flexibility. Over 90% of the courts’ budget goes to paying the judges, court attorneys, court clerks, court officers and others who deliver justice services to millions of New Yorkers in hundreds of civil, criminal, family, housing and surrogate’s courts each year.

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