Members of the Assembly debate budget bills at the Capitol yesterday.
Members of the Assembly debate budget bills at the Capitol yesterday. (AP/Mike Groll)

ALBANY – After five straight years of no-growth budgets, the Judiciary has secured a 2.5 percent increase for the fiscal year that begins April 1, plus a $5 million appropriation to create 20 new family court judgeships in 2015.

The third branch, which has endured cutbacks, absorbed new expenses, adopted highly unpopular cost cutting measures such as shutting courts down early and limped through the economic crisis in do-more-with-less mode, got everything it asked for in the state budget agreement penciled in over the weekend by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders.

Cuomo had wanted to hold the Judiciary budget increase to 2 percent, which would have required a $9 million cut from the requested appropriation, and the Senate, but not the Assembly, initially went along with that recommendation.

But when closed-door negotiations were completed, the Judiciary emerged with an unlikely budgetary triumph, assuming the governor does not use his line-item veto power to trim the appropriation—a possibility that Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, considers highly unlikely.

DeFrancisco said he fought hard for the Judiciary and believes it has earned an increase by suffering its share—and perhaps more—of the pain in recent budgets.

“They have been holding the line for a few years now,” DeFrancisco said. “The increase they requested was reasonable. We also felt it was time to relieve some of the burden in the family courts.”

In the budget bills before the Legislature, the Judiciary is budgeted for $1.81 billion, exactly what it requested.

On top of that, a supplemental appropriation adds $5 million to cover the cost of 20 additional judgeships during the last quarter of the fiscal year. However, while the money for the judgeships is apparently in the budget, the positions have not yet been created and it remains unclear which counties would benefit.

The budget submitted by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti represents an increase of $44.2 million. It includes: an additional $15 million for civil legal services; $17 million for the final phase of statutorily required indigent defense standards; $17.5 million for mandatory raises for non-judicial employees; $8.4 million for the third phase of a judicial pay hike; and funding to maintain current staffing levels, fill several critical posts and ensure that the courtrooms remain open until 5 p.m. each workday.

Currently, staffing is at its lowest level in a decade and in recent years the Office of Court Administration was forcing judges to stop trials no later than 4:45 p.m. to ensure that workers were out the door by 5 p.m. and not racking up overtime. That led to numerous complaints from attorneys and litigants.

Prudenti had described the Judiciary’s spending proposal as a “road to recovery” budget and argued forcefully at a budget hearing in February for the requested funding (NYLJ, Feb. 6), even though Cuomo insisted the sum was “out of step” with the state’s goals (NYLJ, Jan. 22).

Since then, OCA officials and their allies in the bench and bar worked the phones and walked the legislative hallways lobbying for the cause. But as recently as late Friday, it was unclear whether the Judiciary would get the 2.5 percent increase it requested or the 2 percent increase recommended by the governor and Senate, and whether it would have to absorb the cost of the new judgeships without an additional appropriation.

OCA’s executive director, Ronald Younkins, said Monday that the court system is “pleased” with the apparent agreement on its budget but declined further comment.

Judicial Conduct Commission

The budget working its way through the legislative process also includes a nearly 2 percent increase for the Commission on Judicial Conduct, or $100,000. That is considerably less than the $270,000 boost the commission requested but considerably more than zero-growth recommendation by Cuomo’s budget office and the Assembly. With the 2 percent increase, the commission would budget would be a total $5.48 million for fiscal 2014-15.

“For a small agency like the commission, a 2 percent increase is both symbolically and financially significant,” said the commission’s administrator and counsel, Robert Tembeckjian, adding that five years of flat budgeting has reduced his full time staff from 55 to 46. “While I will not be able to hire two additional staff … I will be able to maintain our current level of staffing and activity, while meeting certain mandated operational increases, such as rising rent costs.”

DeFrancisco said he favored giving the agency the $270,000 increase requested by Tembeckjian, but the Assembly wouldn’t go for it.

“They are short staffed, and judges deserve to have disposition of a complaint in a reasonable amount of time, and so do the complainants,” DeFrancisco said. “Tembeckjian is really good at managing his operation in a frugal way. He didn’t come in and ask for a million dollars. He asked for a reasonable amount and we were able to get him a little anyway.”

Overall, the state’s $137.9 billion budget would increase spending by less than 2 percent and includes several new initiatives, including:

• A Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice that will draft recommendations on raising the age of criminal responsibility. New York and North Carolina are the only states that prosecute 16 and 17-year-old offenders in the adult criminal justice system, and Lippman has long advocated raising the age for young people accused of less serious offenses.

• New anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws aimed primarily at public figures.

• Legislation increasing penalties for young drivers convicted of texting-while-driving. Under the new measure, young and new drivers would lose their license for 120 days for a first offense, and a year for a second offense.