As president of the New York State Bar Association, I laud Michael P. Friedman for his personal commitment to pro bono activities (Letter to the Editor, Jan. 29). As a New Yorker, I appreciate his concerns about the state budget. However, Mr. Friedman’s conclusion that the State Constitution restricts the Judiciary from granting funds to civil legal service organizations because that is exclusively the duty of the Legislature is incorrect.
First, it is important to note that the Legislature frequently appropriates money, which is used for grants for projects across the board. These funds are appropriated to the budgets of relevant state entities or agencies, which are obligated to review grant applications and award grants. Here, such funds were placed with the Judiciary. As highlighted in the Judiciary’s budget submission, “the Judiciary Civil Legal Services (JCLS) program provides funding to 80 civil legal services organizations serving low-income New Yorkers in every county of the state in matters involving the essentials of life—legal problems in the areas of housing (including evictions, foreclosures and homelessness), family matters (including domestic violence, children and family stability), access to health care and education, and subsistence income (including wages, disability, veterans and other benefits).”
Just as grants on other topics legitimately go to New Yorkers via the budgets and programs of multiple state agencies, it is completely appropriate for the Judiciary to operate in a similar manner regarding civil legal services to New Yorkers in need of these services.
Second, the Judiciary budget includes a set amount of money to be used for a specific purpose – in this case $85 million for civil legal services (plus $15 million to IOLA). By approving these appropriations in recent fiscal years, state elected officials have made a policy decision that the Judiciary would manage that money and issue grants to civil legal service providers.
In the past, the Legislature would appropriate funds for specific providers, and those organizations that had the support of legislators received money referred to as “Member Items.” To avoid potential inequality and ensure transparency in the grant process, the Association long supported having a single state entity to manage funding for civil legal services.
We now have that systematic, statewide program, managed by the Judiciary, under which grants are made and grantees are held accountable for their use of the funds. As Chief Judge Janet DiFiore noted in her remarks at the annual Justice for All luncheon during our Bar Association’s annual meeting in Manhattan last week, steady management and consistent funding is having a measurable, positive impact.
More low-income New Yorkers than ever are getting legal assistance. That means more New Yorkers can stay in their homes, keep their jobs and get the services they need. And that’s a win for all New Yorkers.
Sharon Stern Gerstman is president
of the New York State Bar Association.