The New York Law Journal by Mark Fass - April 27, 2009
A report released today by the Fund for Modern Courts calls for reassigning to Family Court more judges from other courts and appointing a new statewide deputy chief administrative judge in order to address what it calls a "crisis" in Family Court's resources and procedures. "The lack of adequate resources in New York State's Family Court presents a most difficult task for the judiciary, but it is a challenge that needs to be met," the non-partisan organization's chairman, Victor A. Kovner, said in a statement accompanying the 22-page report. "Family Court is the saddest consequence of a poorly designed court system that is in desperate need of restructuring." The report, entitled "Crisis in Family Court - A Call for Action," was initiated last summer in order to brief the successor to Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who retired after 15 years in the post.
Jonathan Lippman, who was confirmed as the new chief judge in February, received an advance copy of the report earlier this month. In an interview Friday, Chief Judge Lippman repeatedly emphasized his "full support" for the task force's findings and recommendations. He also stressed the "enormous strides" Family Court has made over the last decade, including progress in such areas as adoption, protective proceedings, treatment courts and achieving "one family, one judge." "The biggest infusion to the court system has been to Family Court," Judge Lippman said. The Office of Court Administration intends to continue reassigning judges from other courts to Family Court, Judge Lippman added. An OCA spokesman said such reassignments have resulted in a net increase of nine judges over the last several years. "But you're robbing Peter to pay Paul," the chief judge said. "It would be far better to be able to get what the court [system] needs, and we're going to press that case with the Legislature." There currently are 149 permanent Family Court judges statewide. The court system last year unsuccessfully sought 39 additional judgeships. Judge Lippman said his one "quibble" with the recommendations - whether to appoint a new administrative judge - was simply a disagreement over "nomenclature."
In the next few weeks, the OCA will announce a reorganization involving a "statewide leadership team," which will serve the same purpose without adding a "new layer of administration," the chief judge said. "A title is only part of the equation," Judge Lippman said. The OCA reorganization will be "consistent with the recommendations, [but] we'll be cutting down on the administration. These times demand it." Judge Lippman also called the question of whether the Family Court is in "crisis" an issue of semantics. "It's a court that demands attention," Judge Lippman said. "I agree totally with that characterization. Whether one would call it 'in crisis' is another issue. I accept the call for attention to the Family Court." The Fund for Modern Courts appointed the eight-person task force last summer. Over the next four months, the members interviewed more than 35 judges, attorneys and public policy advocates, among others. The task force also held two focus groups: one upstate and one in Manhattan. Attorneys from Davis Polk & Wardwell also participated in the interviews, provided research and created an appendix of relevant past Family Court reports.
'Call for Action'
Citing such disparate, ongoing and intertwined problems as overwhelming case loads, unmanageable calendars and burdensome administrative responsibilities, the task force concluded that the Family Court is facing a "crisis," and termed the report a "call for action." Family Court judges average 2,120 dispositions a year, the task force reported, compared to 525 for Supreme Court judges in civil matters, 222 for Supreme and County Court judges in felony matters and 63 for Court of Claims judges. "As a result of the unrealistically large caseload in Family Court coupled with the lack of sufficient judges, court calendars are often unmanageable," the report states. It continues: "The Task Force fully understands that facing the ongoing crisis and emergency now present in the New York State Family Courts presents a most difficult task, but it is a challenge that needs to be met. This is especially true while we are facing unprecedented negative economic conditions that will most certainly further flood the already inadequate resources of Family Court." The task force broke its recommendations into six general areas: administrative leadership, judicial resources, case and courtroom management, judicial education and support, resources for litigants and incorporating the best use of technology. In addition to appointing a statewide deputy chief administrative judge for Family Court, specific recommendations include:
•proving case coordinators to review cases;
•assigning "up-front judges" to hear preliminary matters;
•establishing self-help centers;
•implementing a comprehensive data-collection.
The task force has already met with Judge Lippman, and both sides said on Friday that they concur on all the key points, including the need for administrative reform and oversight. The task force's chair, Catherine J. Douglass, said, "I personally have no reason to second guess [Judge Lippman's] way of getting the job done. The real point is that this is an enormous job and that it needs the requisite focus and skills and plan, however the chief judge decides to make it happen." Mr. Kovner, Modern Courts' chair, said the organization's attention will now return to a number of its other, long-term goals, such as judicial pay and court restructuring. "We're hoping for the adoption of the (judicial compensation) legislation," Mr. Kovner said. "Also on our agenda is a constitutional amendment for court restructuring, [including] a Family Court merger (within a single Supreme Court). It's a cost saver. It's something we've been pushing. But the failure to deal with judicial compensation stops so many other things." Mark.Fass@incisivemedia.com