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Lippman: Cuts to greatly impact courts, public

In this file photo, New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman overlooks the state Senate at the Capitol in Albany. In a video to court employees this week, Judge Lippman warned the consequences of the budget cuts to the judiciary will not only harm court operations, but will also be felt heavily by the public. AP Images

The state’s court system is facing massive layoffs as it struggles to reduce its 2011-12 budget by $170 million.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, in a video to employees this week, warned the consequences of the cuts will not only harm court operations, but will also be felt heavily by the public.

“Let there be no mistake,” Judge Lippman said. “The impact of our reduced budget will hurt our ability to serve all New Yorkers and, in particular, those who come to our courts seeking justice.”

The judiciary has to cut its proposed $2.7 billion spending plan for 2011-12 by 6.3 percent. Judge Lippman announced in early March that steps were being taken to trim $100 million, but it wasn’t enough. He was notified in late March that another $70 million in reductions would be needed.

The state budget, passed last week by the state Legislature, includes $170 million less for the judiciary than initially proposed Dec. 1 when the independent branch presented its budget to the state Legislature.

“To give you some sense of the unprecedented impact that $170 million reduction will have on the court system, I will note that the size of the cut is dramatically larger than past reductions to the judiciary budgets we have submitted,” Judge Lippman said. “Over the last 15 years, only four cuts of any magnitude have been made in the judiciary’s budget and these have averaged $12 million, or approximately 1 percent.”

Judge Lippman said the reduction will result in a “substantial scaling back” in every area of court system spending, including judicial hearing officers, court facilities, jury expenditures, civil legal services, judicial and non-judicial education, alternative dispute resolution, children’s centers and legal reference materials.

“While the new budget cuts will do great harm across the board to the court’s ability to meet its responsibilities and continue operations across the state, the most painful cuts, I regret to say, will be in the continued reduction of our already depleted work force.

“While we have not yet determined the exact number of court system layoffs that will be necessary, it will undoubtedly be a very significant number across a broad range of administrative and court operations. We will of course work with the different unions and do everything possible to figure out how we can minimize the number of layoffs,” Judge Lippman said.

He said Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau is working with Deputy Chief Administrative Judges Fern A. Fisher and Michael V. Coccoma and district administrative judges and their officers on the logistics of the process, as well as making sure things are done in compliance with civil service requirements.

“It gives me great pain to have to tell you this,” Judge Lippman said in the video. “I know that some of your jobs may be in jeopardy, but I assure you we are working to keep the layoffs as limited as possible under the circumstances and that the process will be carried out absolutely as humanely as possible. These things are never easy.”

He added that additional saving measures are still being sought to offset the number of people who will lose their jobs.

On Wednesday, Judge Pfau issued a two-page memo to administrative judges with respect to overtime in an attempt to mitigate the number of layoffs.

She advised several steps be taken statewide to reduce overtime costs. They include ending court sessions at 4:30 p.m.; having all unscheduled overtime be approved by Judge Coccoma (for courts outside of New York City) and all existing and proposed overtime approved by Administrative Director Judge Lawrence Marks; excusing deliberating juries for lunch, with the appropriate admonition; and any Unified Court System events that require security should not be held in courthouses after 5 p.m. unless the event organization agrees to reimburse the court.

“Please take steps to ensure that these measures are implemented immediately,” Judge Pfau wrote. “The ultimate number of layoffs … can be mitigated if we make every effort to eliminate non-essential spending.”

Justice Craig J. Doran, administrative judge of the eight-county Seventh Judicial District, said judges and court staff have been terrific in offering suggestions on how to comply with the state directives.

“We’re working together to take steps that are sensible, keeping in mind our mission which is to deliver justice to the people that come to us and constantly revisiting ways in which we might be able to be more efficient,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to save money any way we possibly can before we start talking about impacting the people who work in the courts in that way (layoffs).”