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Courts work with Legislature to determine additional cuts

Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau testifies at joint legislative budget hearing in Albany. New York State Senate Photography

If the state Office of Court Administration is forced to cut its budget 10 percent, it could lead to mass layoffs and the closing of courts.

Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, testifying Wednesday before a joint legislative public hearing on the proposed 2010-11 budget, said such a cut could result in the loss of 2,000 to 2,500 employees and closing the equivalent of all family and criminal courts in the sixth, seventh and eighth judicial districts Upstate, or the entire city of New York.

Judge Pfau was the first to testify in the public protection portion of a series of hearings before senators and Assembly members charged with passing a state budget by April 1 when the next fiscal year starts.

The Legislature is reviewing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed $132.9 billion spending plan unveiled Feb. 1 when he asked the judiciary to reduce its budget, pointing out he had proposed a 10-percent reduction for all state agency operations. Cuomo’s proposed budget is down $3.7 billion from this year and eliminates a $10 billion deficit.

The budget hearings run through March 2.

The Office of Court Administration, in its budget presented to the state Dec. 1, is asking for $2.7 billion — a 1.9 percent increase from this year. That includes $617.4 million in fringe benefits for judges, justices and non-judicial employees, an increase of $50.7 million from this year, but those costs are mandated by contracts.

The operating portion of the budget — $2.1 billion — is down 2 percent from the 2010-11 budget of $2.66 billion, which included $566.7 million for benefits.

Judge Pfau said the operating budget supports a caseload that has increased 15 percent in the last decade with 4.5 million cases filed in 2010 alone.

She said foreclosures in particular are up 150 percent with 200,000 filed since new state legislation went into effect about a year ago to protect homeowners by providing mandatory settlement conferences.

Judge Pfau said the requirement that attorneys document foreclosure information is accurate adds another layer of matters for judges to supervise.

In addition, Judge Pfau told senators and Assembly members that family court matters have increased dramatically with a tripling in the number of orders of protection. She said 66,000 orders were issued in 2010.

Judge Pfau said the state’s economic hardship is being felt in every court in the state and that now, more than ever, courts need to be kept open.

She said the challenge is not to follow other states that have closed courts or reduced hours.

Judge Pfau said the judiciary has been cutting costs in the last couple of years including the loss of 150 employees in a targeted buyout program two years ago and another 1,556 who left late last year under early retirement incentive programs.

She said many of the positions have been left vacant and those that were filled were at lower salaries.

Judge Pfau testified the judiciary is continually looking at ways to better use technology and is conducting a management review to make sure the management system is as efficient as possible.

“We have truly become society’s emergency room and an emergency room that is stretched to the limits,” she added before opening the floor to questions.

Sen. John J. Bonacic, an Orange County Republican, said he would like to see every judge’s expenditures itemized for transparency and accountability.

Judge Pfau said she would be willing to work with the Legislature and Division of Budget to make the budget as transparent and itemized as possible, but that the courts need flexibility to be make sure funding is equalized and that they have the necessary resources in emergency situations.

“The point was not the process and allocation, but itemization of specific expenditures by each judge,” said Sen. Michael F. Nozzolio, a Seneca County Republican, asking why each judge doesn’t itemize his or her budget.

Judge Pfau said the funding in the Legislature is driven by its members, but that funding in the courts is driven by the court structure, which includes thousands of non-judicial employees who are not necessarily affiliated with a single judge or court.

Nozzolio responded that a judge’s cost of operating includes staff and that the judiciary should follow the itemizing example of the Legislature which does “not try to drag its feet and hide behind a cloak of secrecy.

Judge Pfau said she will work with the Legislature on that.

Throughout the hearing, references were made to cost-cutting programs implemented by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and his predecessor, Judge Judith S. Kaye.

Sen. John A. DeFrancisco of Syracuse, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said many things were instituted during Judge Kaye’s tenure (1993-2008) “that are great if we can afford it,” but said hospitals, schools and other entities are cutting back substantially.

He asked about childcare, which is provided for in Family Court, noting the courts went without it in their first 150 years.

Judge Pfau said it can be very disruptive when litigants bring their children to court, but that the budget process is to take a look at the kind of the services the courts want to provide.

“That hasn’t changed,” DeFrancisco said. “There were disruptive kids when we were kids. We would like a list of items that we’ve been spending money on that were traditionally not provided in the courts.”

Judge Pfau said she will provide such a list. She also agreed to put together a list of statutory mandates that may no longer be relevant.

Judge Pfau drew praise from some of the lawmakers including Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat.

“You and Judge Lippman have stood up for the rights of litigants, many of whom have come to you desperate,” Lancman said. “I hope that throughout this budget process you stand firm in your commitment to an independent judiciary and a judicial system that looks out for the rights of litigants.

He then questioned why the part of the budget the judiciary can control was cut only 2 percent.

Judge Pfau explained that within the 2 percent reduction are additions of $25 million for civil legal services for the poor and $11 million to continue funding for the indigent defense case caps, started last year to limit the number of felony and misdemeanor cases an attorney may handle in New York City courts to provide a meaningful defense.

She said the judiciary reduced its budget enough to include the two programs, which it believes are critical to providing meaningful justice, and still came in with a 2 percent reduction.

“We will work with the Legislature and have what I’m sure will be a very productive dialogue on what our budget should look like at the end of the process,” Judge Pfau said after leaving the hearing.

She noted the things that were discussed will be looked at, but are not the kinds of the things that will add up to $270 million — or a 10 percent reduction.

“I can’t emphasize enough that we will work very closely to cut everything that we can,” she added. “I hope and expect that we will be able to do our constitutional obligation to keep the courts open. That’s what our legal obligation is.”