ALBANY – The judiciary’s quest for its first budget hike in more than five years has elicited, if not an outright endorsement, at least empathy and preliminary support from two key lawmakers and other important constituencies.
Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, the longtime chairwoman of the lower chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said that even with the requested 2.5 percent increase the court system wouldn’t have enough money to do all that it should.
“The need is greater than the budget they submitted,” Weinstein said in an interview Monday, three days after receiving the Judiciary budget proposal. “The impact of the cuts the courts have suffered in the past and the impact that it has had in the delivery of judicial services certainly makes the case for an increase.”
But Weinstein said it is too early in the process to predict how the budget request will fare.
“We have to wait for the governor’s budget to see what happens with the agencies and what the state’s fiscal situation looks like,” Weinstein said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, said the Judiciary’s request for a spending increase comes as no surprise after years of no-growth budgets. However, he stopped short of endorsing the Judiciary’s $1.81 billion proposal and suggested it will be carefully scrutinized by the Legislature.
“The courts have done a solid job managing their much smaller resources over the past several years,” Bonacic said. “I think anytime you propose more than a 2 percent spending increase there will be some questions by the Legislature—and this slightly exceeds that percentage. I’m sure that will be focused on during the budget hearings. However, given the substantial reductions the courts have lived with, the need to make this budget request does not surprise me.”
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (See Profile) and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile) on Friday unveiled a proposed spending plan they said is necessary to sustain court operations (NYLJ, Dec. 2).
The budget, which Prudenti described as a “road to recovery” plan to end several years of backsliding and begin moving forward, would add $15 million in funding for civil legal services while allowing the Judiciary to fill some critical positions that went unfilled during a lengthy hiring freeze.
It would also allow the courts, which were shutting down at 4:30 p.m. to ensure that employees are out the door by 5 p.m. and not accumulating overtime, to remain open until 5 p.m.
Further, the budget proposes the creation of 20 new Family Court judgeships, but does not include funding because unless the Legislature establishes the positions there is nothing to fund.
“I certainly think the court system of the past few years has done more than tighten their belt and has had to deal with the impact of budget cuts and their ability to provide justice,” Weinstein said. “I do think that it is appropriate for them to point out the need for an increase, a very modest increase that would help restore courts to 5 p.m., would get the discussion going on the need for Family Court judges, increase civil legal services—all things that are extremely necessary for the courts to function properly.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is required to submit the Judiciary budget to the Legislature without revisions but with any comments he deems appropriate, has not publicly reacted to the spending plan he received Friday.
The governor has directed executive branch agencies to submit no-growth budgets and has indicated he wants to keep state spending in check, with an overall increase of no more than 2 percent.
But some observers say the court system, which has endured several consecutive lean years, makes a good case for its budget.
New York State Bar President David Schraver of Nixon Peabody in Rochester said “the courts have made tremendous strides in cutting costs and reducing inefficiencies” and the “modest” increase is necessary to “address the growing legal needs of New York’s citizens.” Shraver said the increased aid for civil legal services is particularly important to the state bar, which includes the issue among its 2014 legislative goals.
Milton Williams Jr., chairman of the Fund and Committee for Modern Courts, said increasing the number of Family Court judges is crucial. Williams said that even though the budget would not create the new judgeships—that is a legislative prerogative—inclusion of the positions in the Judiciary spending proposal kickstarts the process.
“We are thrilled to see this in the Judiciary budget,” Williams, a partner at Vladick, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, said in an interview. “We are thrilled to see the effort being made.”
At a New York County Lawyers’ Association hearing on Monday discussing how budget cuts have harmed state and federal courts, participants applauded the court system’s proposed budget—especially the effort to create more Family Court judgeships.
After hearing testimony from First Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks (See Profile) and Office of Court Administration Executive Director Ronald Younkins, Michael Miller, cochair of the association’s Task Force on Judicial Budget Cuts, said it was “gratifying to hear you’re putting the onus on the Legislature to establish more Family Court judges.”
Later in the hearing, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden (See Profile), a task force member, noted the shortage of Family Court judges had been known for years but wondered if there was “anything different in the environment today” that would make for additional judges.
Panelist Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and government relations at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, said that when she and other advocates pressed state lawmakers for more Family Court judges last year, the response they heard was “if it’s so important, why is it not in OCA’s budget request?”
“Now it is in the budget request and gives the leverage we need,” Gendell said.
Gendell also noted that New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has been “long in support of more Family Court judges” and hoped he would use his “bully pulpit” to press for more judges.
In an interview after the hearing, Gendell called the budget’s inclusion of the judgeship appropriation “a really important first step” that had “excited” many of her colleagues.
Another panelist, Susan Lindenauer, cochair of the New York State Bar Association Task Force on the Family Court, said her “hope is there will be a change in perspective” from lawmakers.
In an interview after the hearing, Lindenauer called the provision for more Family Court judges “an excellent move in the right direction. I believe it will not fall on deaf ears in the Legislature.”
Cuomo will present his executive budget and the Judiciary’s budget to the Legislature next month, and his commentary will likely be an indication of whether the Judiciary will sail through the process relatively unscathed or endure additional cutbacks.
The last two years, Cuomo praised the Judiciary for presenting restrained, no-growth budgets and its spending plans were adopted without change. But in 2011, when the court system asked for a 1.7 percent increase, the governor accused the Judiciary of not doing its part to close a state budget gap and insisted on cutbacks (NYLJ, Feb. 2, 2011).
After the governor submits his budget, the Legislature will conduct a series of joint hearings, one of which will center on the Judiciary budget. The hearing, where Prudenti will be asked to defend the budget request, is likely to take place in late January or early February.
While the governor’s office focuses on the so-called “cash funding” number, or the amount of money the courts propose to spend in the fiscal year, the Legislature is often more concerned with the “appropriation request,” or the upper limit on available funds. Because of a technical accounting matter, the requested appropriation represents an increase of 3.6 percent, compared to the 2.5 percent cash funding hike highlighted by the Judiciary.