The Office of Court Administration did everything it could to submit a budget request with the smallest possible increase, Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti testified Wednesday at the Legislative Office Building in Albany.
The judiciary budget request represents a 2.5 percent increase, or half a percent more than the 2 percent cap Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he and the Legislature have kept increases to during the three years of his administration.
“This is not a wish list,” Judge Prudenti told lawmakers before a joint legislative hearing on the “public protection” portion of the proposed 2014-15 spending plan. She called the judiciary request of $2.1 billion a “road-to-recovery budget” that will keep courtrooms and courthouses open and allow the courts to return to a 5 p.m. closing, instead of 4:30 p.m., which was implemented a couple of years ago as part of cost-saving measures.
Cuomo, when he submitted the judiciary request with his proposed executive budget, urged the judiciary and Legislature to reduce the judiciary budget so it is “in line with the rest of state spending.” When he introduced his proposal Jan. 21, he said the judiciary was asking for an increase of 2.7 percent, or $53 million more from state operating funds.
The Senate and Assembly are conducting a series of hearings that began Jan. 27 and will run through Tuesday, after which lawmakers will work on the various budget requests to come up with a final spending plan by April 1 when the next fiscal year starts.
“The judiciary does not live in a vacuum,” Judge Prudenti said. “We have worked diligently to be good partners and share the pain of the past fiscal years of austerity.”
She told lawmakers the judiciary, as a separate, but equal branch of the government, is sensitive that all three branches are inter dependent, but said just four years ago, the court system was the only branch to have layoffs.
She said the Office of Court Administration reduced its staff by 1,900 employees, or about 13 percent, and this budget would allow it to fill positions left empty through attrition as well as some other critical positions.
Judge Prudenti said the judiciary cut its budget by $170 million a few years ago and has absorbed another $300 million in increased costs.
Without the budget hike, she said there will be difficulty in staffing all courthouses, which will create delays and security concerns that have been heightened since the 2012 fatal shooting at a Middletown courthouse in Orange County.
The budget also calls for a supplemental $5 million request, not included in the spending request, for an additional 20 Family Court judges throughout the state. Judge Prudenti said she personally does not believe that will be enough, but that the request is to jumpstart the conversation with the executive and legislative branches, which would decide where the need is greatest and how many additional judgeships to fund.
Judge Prudenti also commended the governor for submitting a budget with a 4 percent increase for education and health care, while adding that the judiciary also provides for children and the infirm. She asked lawmakers to keep in mind the judiciary has operated for five years with an essentially no-growth budget.
Sen. John A. DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, asked how much money the half percent represented between a 2 percent and 2.5 percent increase.
Judge Prudenti told him approximately $9 million.
He also noted the judiciary has taken on funding of civil legal services, dropped from other parts of the budget, which represents a $15 million increase in the judiciary budget proposal. He asked if the funding was provided elsewhere, if the court system’s budget increase would fall within the 2 percent and if the judiciary would make a deal to keep the courts open until 5 p.m. if it got the money from other parts of the state budget.
Judge Prudenti said yes, but reminded him the funding has been ongoing from year to year and would not be a one-time thing. She later said to remove civil legal services from the judiciary budget would take away the court system’s constitutional mandate of providing equal justice for all; that the funding has been institutionalized into its budget through a competitive bid process.
She said a report by the Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Services shows even with all the efforts the judiciary has made, only 20 percent of the people in need are being served.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has made civil legal services a priority with plans to incrementally increase funding annually to $100 million. The $15 million increase requested this year would bring the total to $55 million for 2014-15.
“That helps fill the justice gap,” Judge Prudenti said. “It doesn’t fill the justice gap.” She also said for every dollar spent on civil legal services, the state saves $6, mostly in increased federal benefits brought into the state for indigent people in need.
In response to a question from Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, Judge Prudenti said caseloads can range from 400 per judge to 1,000 and that cases have become very complex in recent years.
Assemblyman Phillip G. Steck, D-Colonie, cited a column by attorney Michael P. Friedman in the December newsletter of the Albany County Bar Association, which said case filings in the Third Department have dropped since 1997 and suggests the governor is not out of line in asking the judiciary to reduce its budget.
Judge Prudenti said there has been a “top-to-toe good hard look” at each and every function of the Office of Court Administration since she became chief administrative judge in late 2011, and that several changes have been made and contracts renegotiated.
“I have no idea where he gets his numbers or what he is seeing,” she said. “It would be very easy for me to write an article that would be critical of any large organization. I can assure you that the people I work for and with are of the highest caliber and doing the best job they can.”
Sen. Michael Nozzolio, a Seneca County Republican, commended Judge Prudenti for working with him in reinstating the Court Appointed Special Advocates program last year, which she told him was done at a cost. She said it meant another court reporter or interpreter could not be hired or a district was not able to get something else it had requested.
Judge Prudenti said the CASA line item includes a modest 1 percent cost-of-living increase in the new budget request. Nozzolio called it an important program that the Legislature may work on expanding.
Judge Prudenti testified for about 90 minutes. Leaders from several other state agencies dealing with law enforcement, corrections and the court system also testified.
Written testimony, supporting adequate funding for the judiciary, was submitted by David M. Schraver, president of the New York State Bar Association and a partner in the Rochester office of Nixon Peabody LLP.
“The judiciary’s budget request reflects a balancing between constitutional duty to ensure access to justice for all New Yorkers and the obligation to reduce costs wherever possible,” Schraver wrote. “The state bar strongly supports the judiciary’s 2014-15 budget request, in large part, because it would end the 4:30 p.m. closing time for courtrooms, enhance courtroom security, partially restore the functioning of the offices of the clerks and, in general, rebuild necessary components of the court system’s workforce.”
He noted, in recent years, a reduction in the workforce has resulted in insufficient court officers and clerks to fully staff all courtrooms. Inadequate security has become a major concern, Schraver said, noting trials often are cut off in the midst of testimony — delaying the completion of cases — because of the additional cost to continue after 4:30 p.m.
Schraver also noted delays in resolving cases involving children are compounded by a shortage of Family Court judges, at a time when caseloads have nearly doubled from 366,000 a year to more than 698,000 at the end of 2013. The state bar strongly supports Judge Lippman’s proposal to increase the number of Family Court judges.
“Indeed, this proposal is among our legislative priorities for 2014,” Schraver said. “The lack of judges to hear the overwhelming number of cases involving the safety and well-being of children results in long delays, piecemeal trials, uneven access to justice and a public perception that the forum is ineffectual and unworthy of community confidence.”
The bar also supports increasing funding for civil legal services for the poor, which has been among one of its priorities for years, and suggests the Legislature approved funding in the executive budget necessary to expand the Office of Indigent Legal Services and maximize funds appropriated to county governments.
A copy of Schraver’s complete testimony may be found on the association’s website at http://bit.ly/1lBal2B.