ALBANY – New York City will get nine new Family Court judges and upstate will get 16 under end-of-session legislation enacted overwhelmingly Thursday and Friday by state lawmakers.
The bill, if it is signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will increase the number of Family Court judgeships in New York City from 47 to 56, effective Jan. 1, 2015. It has not yet been determined where the new judges, all of whom would be appointed by the mayor, will sit.
Upstate will get 11 new judges this year and another five on Jan. 1, 2016. All of the upstate positions are elective, and candidates can seek the posts this November in Albany, Broome, Chautauqua, Franklin, Nassau, Oneida, Oswego, Schenectady, Suffolk, Ulster and Westchester counties. The other five Family Court positions will be created in Delaware, Dutchess, Erie, Monroe and Warren counties effective Jan. 1, 2016, with candidates running in November 2015.
The new positions resulted from a budget initiative by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti who, noting that filings over the past 30 years have increased 90 percent while the number of judicial posts has increased by less than 9 percent, included 20 new wish-list Family Court posts in the 2014-2015 budget.
“We have attempted to handle the heavy, and demanding, workload of this court by assigning quasi-judicial staff to hear certain types of cases,” the Judiciary argued forcefully in its budget request. “This temporary remedy is no longer sustainable: it is time to do right by the families in crisis that come to this court.”
The Legislature agreed.
Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, and Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, the chairs of the Judiciary committees in their respective houses, introduced bills that not only included the 20 positions requested by Lippman and Prudenti, but added five more. On Thursday and Friday, lawmakers approved the measure with a 57-1 Senate vote and a 132-2 tally in the Assembly.
“Judge Prudenti and I are both thrilled and gratified this bill passed,” Lippman said in a statement. “With rising caseloads annually, these additional judges we have sought for decades will serve some of our most important litigants, the children and families in New York State.”
Officials and advocates have sought new Family Court judgeships for years and the New York State Coalition for More Family Court Judges, an alliance of more than 100 organizations, mounted a strong lobbying effort, as did the New York State Bar Association.
Stephanie Gendell, co-chair of the Coalition for More Family Court Judges, said in a statement: “After many years of waiting, the needs of the children and families served by the Family Court have finally been heard. For far too long, the most important decisions in the lives of families throughout the State have been at the mercy of an overburdened Family Court system.”
An Overburdened System
Denise Kronstadt, co-chair of the New York State Coalition for More Family Court Judges and deputy executive director/director of advocacy at the Fund for Modern Courts, said the commitment to additional Family Court judgeships represents the single largest investment in the court in 50 years. There have been no new Family Court positions in New York City since 1990 and the only one created anywhere in the state was added in Orange County, Bonacic’s district, in 2005.
State Bar President Glenn Lau-Kee of Kee & Lau-Kee in Manhattan said in statement that the judgeship bill was the organization’s top legislative priority this year.
“Circumstances that bring a child to Family Court, such as adoption, custody or delinquency are fraught with emotion,” Lau-Kee said. “By seeking to increase resources for the courts, this bill will help children move ahead with their lives.”
The New York City Bar Association also commended legisators for passing the bill.
“This greatly needed legislation will immediately benefit children and families, helping to ease the strain on an overburdened Family Court,” said the organization’s president Debra L. Raskin.
Senator Betty Little, R-Queensbury, has pushed hard to ensure that small, rural counties in her district were included. She said that initially, none of the new judgeships would have been north of Albany, despite the “enormous need in the North Country.”
“When there is a delay in Family Court, when there are too many cases for judges to handle, we know that very often it is children who suffer,” Little said on the floor of the Senate Friday morning. She said Franklin County does not currently have a Family Court judge, but rather a multi-hat judge who sits in several different courts, including Family Court. She said the county needs more than a part-time Family Court judge.
“I am very, very pleased,” Little said. “This will help the North Country, and in particular two of the six counties I represent, Warren and Franklin.”
Senator Hugh Farley, a Republican from Schenectady, said Family Court is “one of the most challenging judicial posts that there is, a very, very difficult job. I am very, very grateful that Schenectady is included, because it is desperately needed.”
Staten Island Democrat Diane Savino said the need for additional Family Court judgeships has long been apparent, noting that former Chief Judge Judith Kaye unsuccessfully sought 39 more positions several years ago.
“We’re not quite there, but this is a tremendous start,” said Savino, who began her career as a caseworker in the city’s child welfare system.
“Back in the early 1990s, our Family Courts were drastically overcrowded and the facilities were horrific,” Savino told her colleagues. “We have come forward in New York City, but we are already outgrowing our new courthouses. But there is one thing we know: When you have a shortage of judges, you have a shortage of services for families, particularly kids who have been separated from their parents pursuant to abuse and neglect petitions. When you don’t have enough judges to hear cases, children linger in foster care longer than they have to.”
Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Mount Vernon, said, “We have put a tremendous amount of burden and responsibility on Family Courts as we pass legislative initiatives, and we have not [addressed] the number of judges on the bench, as we should. I pushed for 25 judges in this budget and was pleased to get 20, but I think we need to continue to push because there are many communities in upstate New York and outside the city that need [more judges] who are specifically designed work with families and family issues.”
The final version of the bill condenses the petition process for seeking the new judgeships upstate.
It reduces the time period for collecting signatures from a month to two weeks, but extends the cut-off date to July 24 and reduces the number of signatures necessary to get on the ballot.
The necessary number of signatures varies depending on the size of the county: prospective candidates in counties of 250,000 or more will need 700 signatures; attorneys in counties with between 25,000 and 250,000 residents will need only 350 signatures; and those in the smallest counties will be required to submit petitions with 175 signatures.
Cuomo has 10 days to sign or veto the bill, and is expected to approve it. The governor had earlier signed off on a Judiciary budget that included the positions and the funding, will veto the bill.
Court officials are eager for the governor to sign the measure by June 30, otherwise a $5 million appropriation in the Judiciary budget will be lost and the court system will have to find the money to pay for the judgeships elsewhere.