The thing Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman finds most surprising about the testimony he has heard in a series of hearings on civil legal services is the depth of the need.
He also said the fact that those in need are not the poorest of New Yorkers and that are lot of working people cannot get by on their own — the working poor and near poor.
Before his Fourth Department hearing in Syracuse Tuesday, Judge Lippman met privately with representatives from The Daily Record.
He acknowledged the $40 million the Office of Court Administration received for this fiscal year — including $15 million from the Interest on Lawyers Account fund — is the most public funding provided by any state in the nation, but said it is still just the tip of the iceberg.
Judge Lippman said there is a gap between the need for civil legal services and the funding to meet that need. He expects to ask for more money when he submits his budget request to the governor by the Dec. 1 deadline, noting it was too early to say how much more. He wants to complete the hearing process and see what the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services recommends.
Judge Lippman said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has asked state agencies — which does not include the judiciary, the independent third branch of government — to hold the line for the next two years.
“We pay close attention to that,” he said. “I think the issue, to me, is our overall budget and within that budget, the civil legal services, and how much we’ll put in. It’s part of a bigger picture, but certainly there’s nothing more important to me, as chief judge, than civil legal services for the poor.”
Judge Lippman said there are two basic pieces to the puzzle: More pro bono service and more money. The hearings have become a central part of the budget process and he believes the governor and Legislature are recognizing the issue.
“We think we’ve gotten their attention, and they’ve been very supportive,” Judge Lippman said. “The fundamental mission is equal justice for all and it’s my responsibility, as chief judge, to see that we meet this mission.”
He is getting a lot of ideas from the testimony at the four hearings and looking at suggestions that include mandatory pro bono work by attorneys, pro bono service by out-of-state attorneys who practice in New York and more cost benefit analyses.
During his opening remarks at the Fourth Department hearing in Syracuse, Judge Lippman said the court system has to stand up for the poor in a very difficult economy, when the need is greatest.
“If we’re not going to do it, no one else is,” he said. “It’s important that we demonstrate our commitment.”
His last hearing is in the Second Department today in Nassau County. The first hearing was Sept. 27 in the Third Department in Albany; the First Department’s was Monday in Manhattan.