The policy-setting body of the New York State Bar Association endorsed a plan on Jan. 25 to help relieve Family Courts caseloads by creating a new category of Court of Claims judges who would be assigned to high-volume Family Court benches.

The chair of a taskforce that has been working for two years to find ways to alleviate stresses on Family Court said that while the numbers of judges must increase, the courts could ease the burden by administratively assigning more judicial hearing officers, court attorneys, and referees and support magistrates.

The New York State Bar’s House of Delegates meets on Jan. 25 at the Hilton New York.   NYLJ/Rick Kopstein

The House of Delegates approved the Family Court report near the close of the state bar’s annual meeting last week at the Hilton New York.

The house also approved a resolution calling on the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to severely restrict instances where prisoners spend more than 15 consecutive days in solitary confinement based on the psychological damage associated with extended isolation, and it endorsed a taskforce’s recommendations on improving the number of New Yorkers who vote.

The House of Delegates also elected Glenn Lau-Kee, a partner at Kee & Lau-Kee in Manhattan, as the bar group’s president. He is in line to become the first Asian-American president in the state bar’s 137-year history on June 1, 2014.

David Schraver, the current president-elect, will succeed Seymour James Jr. as president on June 1. Schraver is with Nixon Peabody in Rochester and James is attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice of the New York City Legal Aid Society.

The Family Court taskforce was chaired by Susan Lindenauer, retired general counsel for the Legal Aid Society, and Family Court Judge Mary Rita Connerton in Broome County (See Profile).

Its top recommendation was the creation of more judgeships to deal with Family Court caseloads that have grown to nearly 750,000 a year from 683,000 in 2001, in part because of new state and federal mandates imposed on the courts.

At the same time, the taskforce noted, the number of authorized Family Court judges in New York City has remained constant at 47, though Civil, Criminal and Supreme Court justices can be designated to handle Family Court matters.

Outside of New York City, the number of Family Court judgeships has increased by four over the past decade to 102.

The Legislature and governor have repeatedly rebuffed attempts, backed by the Office of Court Administration, to create new judgeships for Family and other courts. Opponents usually cite the costs of creating new judgeships.

Lindenauer said the taskforce felt that new Family Court judges could be made available through the “circuitous” route of designating Court of Claims judges.

There was no immediate comment from legislative chairs who have oversight over judicial matters on creation of more Court of Claims’ judgeships.

There are 80 Court of Claims judges, about two-thirds of whom are designated acting Supreme Court justices to serve as needed on busy benches, according to court administrators. The rest hear monetary claims against the state.

In the meantime, the taskforce said that where possible, the courts should fund judicial hearing officers, court referees and support magistrates. While the “quasi-judicial decision-makers are not a substitute for Family Court judges,” the state bar committee said they can play a valuable role in helping judges move caseloads forward.

Another recommendation was to expand court days and to make legal services more readily available to litigants in Family Court.

Lindenauer acknowledged in an interview that while funds are tight everywhere in the judicial system, the lower economic status of many Family Court litigants demands they receive legal help where possible.

“If you believe that there should be access to justice, then the poor people’s court is deserving of the resources that they need and this is certainly a poor people’s court, on the whole,” she said.

Solitary Confinement

The resolution on solitary confinement stemmed from a report by the Committee on Civil Rights focusing on the psychological and physical dangers to prisoners subjected to solitary confinement too often and for too long.

According to the report, about 4,500 of the some 56,000 state prison inmates are assigned to solitary confinement at any one time. The average stay in solitary is about five months and about 2,700 of the prisoners have been in for one year or more, according to the chief author of the report, Karen Murtagh, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.

There are no limits on how long inmates can be assigned to solitary confinement, Murtagh said.

The resolution calls on the state to limit solitary confinement to no more than 15 days. And the Committee on Civil Rights called on the bar group to urge for a law spelling out limits on solitary confinement.

State prison officials had no immediate response to the solitary confinement resolution.

Corrections Commissioner Brian Fisher was praised by members of the House of Delegates for being receptive on altering prison procedures to find ways to have fewer inmates consigned to solitary, which is known by prison administrators as “special housing units.”

The state bar joined the American Bar, the New York City Bar, the New York County Lawyers’ Association and the New York Civil Liberties Union in calling for severe restrictions on the use of solitary.

Voter Participation

Attorneys John Dunne of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna in Albany and Daniel Kolb of Davis Polk & Wardwell in Manhattan cochaired the taskforce that reported on improving voter participation.

Its main recommendations involve allowing voters to register online, to amend the state Constitution to allow voters to register on Election Day and to allow the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds as a way to encouraging participation in elections after reaching the legal voting age, 18.