More than anything else, what makes this country great is our commitment to the rule of law and our protection of the liberties enshrined in our state and federal constitutions. It is that promise of liberty and freedom—that singular dedication to the rule of law that applies equally to each and every person in this country regardless of their standing in life—that sets us apart and extends our capacity to grow and excel. To live up to that promise, we must have an independent and impartial judiciary, adequately funded and co-equal to the other branches of government. This year’s Law Day theme—”No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom”—reminds us of the vital importance of preserving the institution of the courts if we are to maintain our way of life and our essential national character.
Effects of Funding Cuts
In the last few years, shrinking state coffers have threatened the vitality of courts around the country. Cuts to court budgets have resulted in furloughs and lay-offs in many states. Some state courts found themselves with no choice but to eliminate programs that served the public, temporarily shut down civil trials, and even close some courthouses.
The reduction in the judiciary’s budget here in New York last year had very direct and painful consequences for the courts, including the lay-offs of more than 400 court employees who were very much a part of our court family. The impact on the public was immediate and visible. In order to control overtime, we imposed 4:30 p.m. court closings, which meant delays to hearings and trials and long gaps between court appearances. Changes to arraignment part schedules affected arrest-to-arraignment times. The cancellation of evening hours for small claims courts delayed the hearing and resolution of cases, and the deep reductions in court personnel made the delivery of justice slower and more difficult.
Despite all of these difficulties, there can be no doubt that with crisis there is opportunity. Working together, we have re-engineered the way we do our business in New York’s courts through creative problem-solving, operational changes, increased automation and, above all, an unswerving commitment to the people of this state. We have demonstrated not only that our courts are resilient, but also that nothing can deter us from performing our constitutional mission.
Our partners in government, recognizing the herculean efforts and unique mission of the courts, worked side by side with the judiciary on a budget that ensures our continued ability to deliver timely and effective justice. The judiciary’s budget request was enacted into law in its entirety—a budget that is both fiscally responsible and operationally efficient. As a result, we are now able to loosen many of the restrictions that had such a dramatic impact on litigants and the public.
Possibly the most significant change in this year’s budget is the long-awaited increase in judicial salaries. After 13 years of waiting for even a cost of living increase to keep up with inflation, New York’s state-paid judges finally will be compensated at a level that puts them in some rational relationship to our federal colleagues and judges in other states. Last month, we had the first and most significant installment in the judicial pay raise that will ultimately total a 27 percent increase for New York’s richly deserving judges. And this year, we were able to obtain $25 million in funding for civil legal services and $15 million to rescue the New York State Interest on Lawyer Account Fund, a tremendous boon to the millions of vulnerable New Yorkers who come into our courts without the help of a lawyer to secure the basic necessities of life.
The bottom line is that the court system has weathered the storm, as it has done historically no matter how difficult the times. With a sound budget, increased funding for civil legal services and, the long, long wait for judicial salaries behind us, I strongly believe that the courts of the state of New York are very much on the upswing and the future is bright. That being said, we must never be complacent or let others forget that a strong, independent, co-equal judiciary is essential to the very viability of our tripartite system of government.
Look to the Future
Going forward, our society must remain committed to ensuring the continued strength and vitality of the judicial branch. As a judiciary, our charge is to provide equal justice to all—rich and poor, high and low alike. What could be more important to our society and the future of our nation? The words of John Adams, the subject of last year’s Law Day observances, so eloquently address the indispensable nature of the courts: “The dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend so much upon an upright and skillful administration of justice.” That statement, made in 1776, could not be more the case today in New York and around the country on Law Day 2012.
Jonathan Lippman is Chief Judge of the State of New York.