State Senator John Bonacic and Denise Kronstadt, co-chair of the New York State Coalition for More Family Court Judges, enjoy a laugh during a lobbying visit to the senator’s office in Albany last week. (Tim Roske)
ALBANY – Court administrators are getting a helping hand in selling their top legislative priority for 2014 at the state Capitol.
Representatives of a coalition of more than 80 legal and community service organizations journeyed to Albany last week to lobby state legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office for funding to create 20 new Family Court judgeships beginning Jan. 1, 2015.
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The lobbying push is the latest attempt by the Unified Court System and its allies to address a long-developing rise in Family Court caseloads that is blamed on everything from legislative mandates to the stresses on families in tough economic times.
“It is essential for the administration of justice that we help people who are coming to us in times of crisis,” Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti said.
The Family Court judge initiative requires an appropriation in the state budget, which takes effect April 1. The Coalition for More Family Court Judges was formed to promote the initiative, which was included in the Judiciary’s 2014-15 budget proposal released late last year (NYLJ, Dec. 2).
The courts want $5 million for new judges beginning on Jan. 1 for the final three months of the next fiscal year. The new judgeships would cost $20 million, or $1 million each, for each full year after that.
The coalition is led by Denise Kronstadt, deputy executive director of the Fund for Modern Courts, and Stephanie Gendell, director of government relations for the Citizens’ Committee for Children.
Other groups involved include the League of Women Voters for the state and New York City, MFY Legal Services, the state Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the state Court Officers Association, Lawyers for Children, the Empire Justice Center, the state and New York City Court Appointed Special Advocates, the NYU Family Defense Clinic and the Pace Women’s Justice Center.
The coalition cites statistics that Prudenti and other court officials use to support the 20 new judgeships: Family Court caseloads have grown to 700,000 annually, an increase of 90 percent over the past 30 years. Yet no new Family Court judges have been added in New York City since 1991 and only four have been created statewide since 1998.
There are 153 Family Court judges in the state and 47 in New York City.
Coalition leaders met with more than a dozen state legislators March 5 during their lobbying day at the Capitol.
In order to make the proposal palatable to the other two branches of government, the Judiciary’s budget proposal allows the Legislature and the governor to decide where to place the new judges.
‘Always a Food Fight’
Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the advocates that he supports the initiative and hopes the measure does not get bogged down in partisan and geographic squabbling over where the new judges would sit.
“That is always a food fight,” Bonacic told the lobbyists. “We’ll try to weigh in to apportion them, not according to [legislators'] seniority, but where the greatest needs are. There’s always friction. Everybody says they need one in every county … but we only have 20, so we have to do it intelligently.”
Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn was not available to meet with coalition members, but noted in a statement that she has sponsored bills in recent years that included increasing the number of Family Court judges (NYLJ, April 14, 2010).
“Family Courts are in crisis, and it is high time to bring some measure of relief to these courts and the litigants appearing in them,” she said.
Noting the general support of the Legislature, Bonacic urged the coalition to lobby Cuomo. The group also met on March 5 with two of Cuomo’s assistant counsels.
“It was a very positive meeting,” Kronstadt said afterward. “We didn’t receive assurances that the governor was supporting it, but we are cautiously optimistic.”
Cuomo’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
Kronstadt said she got the impression from legislators that the “time is right” to add Family Court judges. “It has reached a crisis level and they are hearing about it,” she said.
Kronstadt said she occasionally compares notes with court officials but said the coalition’s efforts are independent of Lippman and the Unified Court System. “We are not in any way coordinating with them,” she said. “We are our own directed campaign.”
David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the courts, said “we welcome their support in their critical area.”
The coalition released a YouTube video last week that shows the effects on families and children of delays caused by huge caseloads. Kronstadt said coalition members have sent more than 4,000 letters to legislators and Cuomo’s office.
Eight Family Court judges went to Albany last week to lobby lawmakers. That delegation was led by Anthony McGinty, an Ulster County Family Court judge who is president of the state Family Court Judges Association and Carol Sherman, a Bronx Family Court judge who is president of the New York City Family Court Judges Association.
Officials said a delegation of County Court judges would trek to the Capitol this week to support the proposal for more Family Court judgeships. County Court judges in many counties also handle Family Court matters.
Prudenti said the Office of Court Administration is preparing detailed analyses of where Family Court caseloads and recent increases have been the greatest and where the caseload ratios per judges are the highest.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who would appoint any new Family Court judges in New York City, endorses the initiative, according to his spokeswoman, Ishanee Parikh.
“Mayor de Blasio absolutely agrees with Judge Lippman’s proposal,” Parikh said. “We currently have too few Family Court judges who are overloaded with too many cases. The children and families that come through the Family Court system are among our most vulnerable citizens and they deserve immediate attention.”
While many presume most of the new judgeships would be in New York City, courts in several counties outside the city are “extremely busy” as well and can make strong claims for additional resources, Prudenti said.
Family Court practitioners say the court’s workloads have increased in part due to legislative mandates. In particular, the Legislature has mandated semi-annual permanency hearings in Family Courts for children in foster care and the issuance by Family Court judges of orders of protection for domestic violence victims who are unrelated to their abusers.