ALBANY – Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, the recently named head of the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee, isn’t “looking to reinvent the wheel” as the committee chairman, but he’s examining changes to the judiciary.
In an interview with the New York Law Journal on Friday, the Bronx Democrat said he’s “concerned” that there aren’t enough judges in the five boroughs, something that he hopes to address as the head of the judiciary committee, which has jurisdiction over any legislation that may affect New York courts.
The state constitution allows the Legislature to increase the number of justices of the state Supreme Court, subject to a cap of one justice per 50,000 people. Under that formula, the Bronx would be entitled to three more judges, and “boy do we need it in the Bronx,” Dinowitz said.
“I’m not saying that every [judicial] district get up to that number. Some have lighter caseloads. But certainly within the boroughs of the city. There are huge backlogs. We need more judges,” Dinowitz said during a phone interview.
“We really have to start talking about putting money in the judiciary in the amount that are appropriate to dispense justice and be fair,” Dinowitz said. “The judicial budget has been kind of flat in recent years … If we want to have the best possible justice system, then it doesn’t come free. There’s always room to make things more efficient. But we have to pay to make sure we have enough judges, court officers and buildings that are decent.”
Adding more judges would mean increasing the state’s judicial budget, which has largely abided by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2 percent spending growth limit for state agencies. Increasing the judiciary’s budget beyond 2 percent could be further complicated by the fact that the state is already facing a $4 billion budget deficit and federal funding cuts.
In September, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced that Dinowitz, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and a former administrative judge, would take over the position of head of the judiciary committee, succeeding Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein of Brooklyn. Weinstein, the first woman to hold the position of chair of the judiciary committee when she was appointed in 1994, was elevated to the powerful position of chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for all matters pertaining to the adoption of the state budget after Assemblyman Herman “Denny” Farrell of Manhattan retired after 42 years as a lawmaker.
Dinowitz, who has been part of the judiciary committee for roughly 20 years, said despite his long tenure on the committee “there’s a steep learning curve.”
“I’m not looking to necessarily do things differently than Helene,” he said. “She did a great job. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel.”
Following in Weinstein’s footsteps of increasing funding for civil legal services, Dinowitz said it’s also “top priority” for him.
“Housing Court is the busiest court in the Bronx. We have to make sure they run efficiently and fairly,” he said.
In August, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation into law providing all low-income tenants facing eviction with legal representation in Housing Court, something that should be implemented statewide, Dinowitz said.
“That should be how it is all over the place. We want to prevent homelessness and one way to do it is treating tenants fairly in housing courts,” he said, adding that he’d also like to make a push to make the judiciary more diverse.
“People have to feel that the judiciary has to represent everybody,” Dinowitz added. “I think that’s an important issue … I don’t know if it’s something the committee can actually do something about. But all of these things are important. We want a fair judicial system.”