New York’s struggle to keep its courts functioning despite deep budget cuts is hardly unique among the nation’s court systems, William T. Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association, told New York State Bar Association members gathered at the group’s annual meeting on Jan. 25.
In fact, 42 state court systems suffered significant budget cuts in 2011, according to the National Center for State Courts. Mr. Robinson praised the New York state bar for highlighting problems caused by $170 million in budget cuts in the 2011-12 court budget. He called the bar’s report last week on widespread court delays, shortages of experienced personnel and other problems “beyond compelling.”
“I wish I could say that I was surprised about the conclusions of that report,” said Mr. Robinson, who has made state courts a focus of his presidency. “Sadly, I wasn’t. I wish I could say that this is an isolated problem. It is not. As difficult as funding woes have been in New York, as you know, you are not alone in this country. Courts across our nation are trying to survive with similarly anemic court budgets.”
The ABA’s House of Delegates approved a resolution in August 2011 urging state and local bar groups to document the effects of funding cutbacks in courts and to develop “sustainable strategies” for educating the public, public officials, civic groups and others about the value of adequate funding.
At yesterday’s Presidential Summit, from left, are state bar president Vincent E. Doyle, former chief judge Judith S. Kaye, Elaine Jones of the ABA task force of preservation of the justice system, economist Nels A. Pearsall, Margaret J. Finerty of Getnick & Getnick, and Abraham Lackman, president of Praxis Insights.
Mr. Robinson said bar groups in other states have taken note of the state bar’s efforts to work with other New York bar groups to resist further cuts in the Judiciary’s budget and to document the costs of the cuts to litigants, lawyers, judges and others. He said the state bar has a “partner in the ABA” in its efforts to fight for state court funding.
“We must remember that this is not a problem that can be solved overnight,” said Mr. Robinson, who is member-in-charge of the northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd.
Mr. Robinson’s remarks at the “presidential summit” at the New York Hilton were followed by a panel discussion on underfunded courts moderated by former chief judge Judith S. Kaye. She said the “grievous” effects of state court funding was a “crisis” that had been building after several essentially flat Judiciary budgets before Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature approved the $170 million cut in the fiscal year that began April 1, 2011.
“We’re bleeding from every pore,” said Ms. Kaye, who was forced into mandatory retirement in 2008. She is now of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “This has been going on for a long time.”
The Judiciary has proposed a $2.4 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2012, that is essentially flat. Court administrators have said it is the bare minimum they will need to keep the courts operating.
Panelist Elaine R. Jones, director-counsel emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said some states’ court funding woes are more extreme than New York’s.
In California, she said, some courts have closed for several days a month and there have been widespread layoffs of court personnel.
In Georgia, she said, the state has to rely on interns to keep the clerk’s office at the state’s highest court operating. Georgia courts also have solicited donations of pens and pencils from Westlaw and other vendors because there is no money available to purchase the materials through available court funds, she said.
Ms. Jones is on an ABA task force co-chaired by David Boies of Boies Schiller & Flexner and Theodore Olson of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher that is documenting the effects of state court funding cutbacks.
“This issue is nationwide, it’s systemic and it’s a problem that’s going to take us some years to address,” she said.
Another panelist, Abraham Lackman, said one possible solution in New York would be to revive plans to consolidate the courts.
A task force appointed by Ms. Kaye when she was chief judge recommended in 2007 that New York’s 11 trial-level courts be consolidated into a two-tier structure with a single Supreme Court and a statewide network of district courts. The plan also called for the merger into the Supreme Court of the Court of Claims and County, Family and Surrogate’s courts.
“We have a court system that’s archaic and inefficient,” said Mr. Lackman, who was once the top fiscal aide to the Republican majority in the state Senate. “We have a very, very inefficient system.”
Mr. Lackman suggested that a consolidated court system would save New York at least $100 million a year.
While he noted that court consolidation would require approval of a constitutional amendment by the Legislature and voters in a statewide referendum, a process that has discouraged previous efforts to streamline the courts, he also said that Mr. Cuomo has made the consolidation of executive branch agencies a goal of his governorship and that the time may be right to renew a proposal for the courts.
“I think the court system is going to have to get more efficient,” said Mr. Lackman, who now runs Praxis Insights, a higher education consulting firm, and is the Rappleyea government scholar in residence at Albany Law School’s Government Law Center.
Others on the court funding panel were Margaret J. Finerty, a former New York City criminal court judge who is a partner at Getnick & Getnick, and Nels Pearsall, an economist with the Los Angeles-based Micronomics Inc.
A second panel at the president summit on Jan. 25 examined the parameters of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010), and obligations that lawyers have when representing non-citizens who could face deportation as a collateral effect of a criminal proceeding.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.