Since the establishment of our nation, the founders envisioned an important role for the judiciary in sustaining our democratic system. The judicial branch later became the bulwark of civil rights and liberties. Article III of the U.S. Constitution established the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary as one of three coequal branches of government. States also put faith in a judicial branch when constructing their own governments. Article VI, Section I, of the New York State Constitution created the Unified Court System, including the Appellate Divisions. Over the last 200 years, state courts became the primary venue for resolving disputes; approximately 95 percent of all litigation in America takes place in state courts.1 Consistent and timely access to state courts is necessary to ensure that individuals and businesses dispose of conflicts efficiently and effectively.

Given New York’s status as a global financial center, the Appellate Division, First Department hears many complex commercial cases and our determinations of these appeals can have wide-reaching implications. Equally important to our justices and staff is our responsibility to the citizens of Manhattan and the Bronx, many of whom come to our court for claims involving “essentials of life” such as housing, subsistence income and access to healthcare. We handle a substantial number of criminal and civil matters. Court records from 2010 indicate that in one year 2,200 appeals were either argued or submitted to be resolved. Because New York’s Court of Appeals is a court of limited jurisdiction, with review powers restricted to questions of law, we are a court of last resort for many litigants.

Reliance on our state’s court system continues to grow. New York courts experienced a 12 percent increase in their caseloads over the last decade.2 This is due in part to a rise in foreclosure filings and consumer debt cases.3 Simultaneous with the increase in litigation, state court budgets steadily declined. It also bears noting that state court budgets are, on average, less than 2 percent of a state’s entire budget.4 This year’s Law Day theme invites us to reflect upon this crisis.

Impact of Funding Cuts

The appellate divisions have certainly felt the effects of the shrinking budget. We are required to keep up with increasing demands with fewer available resources. It is at times like this that we appreciate even more the efforts of the members of our court, as well as the attorneys and judges who generously give their time and expertise, without pay, to participate in various programs that enable the court to operate efficiently.

Budget cuts in New York are substantial—our current budget includes a $170 million reduction compared to last year.5 The appellate divisions received nearly $450,000 less than last year.6 The state recently offered retirement incentives, prompting the departure of a number of First Department staff. The loss of those individuals, many of whom had been with the court for decades, resulted in the depletion of considerable institutional knowledge. This is not unique to the First Department. In recent years, courts across the state reduced their non-judicial workforce by more than 8 percent.7 In addition, hiring freezes require us to complete our work with fewer employees. However, the members of our court family have risen to the challenge and continue our tradition of providing “speedy justice.”

Taking Action

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Task Force on Expanding Access to Civil Legal Services in New York encouraged state courts to consider non-monetary ways of addressing access to justice in the face of inadequate funds.8 The First Department has several such initiatives. For decades, we have had a Pre-Argument Conference Program, in which litigants negotiate before Special Masters—volunteer attorneys who serve as mediators—settlements and other measures that will aid in the disposition of appeals. The administration of this program would not be possible without the efforts of many prominent members of the legal community.

The First Department also benefits from volunteers (retired judges, attorneys, and members of the community), who serve on our Departmental Disciplinary Committee (DDC). Together with the court staff, DDC members hold hearings as to misconduct and recommend sanctions, facilitating the disposition of all of our disciplinary proceedings. These volunteers continue to be an essential component of the disciplinary process, reducing the pressure on court operations and increasing our ability to respond to matters diligently and efficiently.

We also benefit from volunteer efforts when admitting new attorneys. Our Committee on Character and Fitness works with the court staff in interviewing candidates for admission to the bar and holding hearings, when necessary, to evaluate those applications containing potential obstacles to admission. The efforts of the Character Committee helped us admit over 3,000 attorneys in 2010.

I cannot stress enough my appreciation for the pro bono efforts of the legal community, which increase our ability to persist in fulfilling our institutional duties in the face of thinning economic resources. I am hopeful that the appellate divisions’ recent endorsement9 of raising the cap on the total amount of pro bono an attorney may count toward CLE requirements from 6 to 10 credits will inspire further participation in our volunteer opportunities.

I commend New York courts for adapting to budget deficiencies. Going forward, I am confident that my colleagues here in the First Department will continue to strive to meet our responsibilities with the limited resources available to us. We are mindful, always, that courts need to continue to provide access to justice even when our economy is suffering. Our mission of providing just and timely resolution of all matters must endure.10

Luis A. Gonzalez is Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, First Department.

Endnotes:

1. See Chief Judge Eric Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals, Address at the Am. Bar Ass’n Midyear Meeting (Feb. 6, 2012), available at http://www.ncsc.org/Information-and-Resources/Budget-Resource-Center/Economic-impact/ABA-Task-Force-Midyear-Address-Washington.aspx; “As States Cut Court Budgets, Who Pays the Price?,” Nat’l Pub. Radio, Oct. 4, 2011, available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=141043681 (“Who Pays the Price?”).

2. “NY Bar Association Says Budget Cuts Slowed Courts,” Wall St. J., Jan. 18, 2012.

3. N.Y. Bar Ass’n, Report of the Executive Committee on the Impact of Recent Budget Cuts in New York State Court Funding 4 (2012), available at http://www.nysba.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&Template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=62096 (Recent Budget Cuts).

4. See “Who Pays the Price?,” supra note 1.

5. See N.Y. Unified Court Sys., Budget: Fiscal Year 2012-2013 (2011), available at http://www.courts.state.ny.us/admin/financialops/BGT12-13/Final2012-13Budget.pdf (Fiscal Year 2012-2013); Recent Budget Cuts, supra note 3.

6. Fiscal Year 2012-2013, supra note 5, at 91.

7. Fiscal Year 2012-2013, supra note 5, at 8.

8. The Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Serv. in N.Y., Report to the Chief Judge of the State of New York 39–41 (2011), available at http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/access-civil-legal-services/PDF/CLS-TaskForceREPORT.pdf.

9. See Joel Stashenko, “Courts Approve Increase in CLE Bonus for Lawyers Who Offer Pro Bono Services,” New York Law Journal, March 9, 2012.

10. I would like to thank Alina J. Fortson, an NYU Law student, for her assistance in the research and analysis of this issue.