(212) 428-2500 - Date: January 19, 2009 - Hon. Ann Pfau, Chief Administrative Judge
New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Statement on Proposed 2010-11 Judiciary Budget
I must respond to the Governor's commentary on the judiciary’s fiscal year 2010-11 proposed budget, in which he asks that I revisit the judiciary's request and offers suggestions for how it may be reduced. The commentary states that the judiciary must do more to “restructure” its operations in light of the State’s economic downturn, and suggests that its budget request should be dramatically reduced, by as much as $132 million. The commentary reflects both a misunderstanding of the judiciary’s basic constitutional obligation to hear each and every case that comes before it and a failure to appreciate fundamental differences in the budgets of the Judicial and Executive Branches. The Governor's commentary completely ignores the fact that this is a no-growth budget request. Even though the court system’s workload has reached historic levels, the request seeks not a single dollar for enhanced court operations. The additional funding sought essentially represents extraordinary, non-discretionary cost increases beyond the judiciary’s control, including $84.6 million in contributions to the State’s pension fund, $58.4 million for nonjudicial salary increases required by collective bargaining agreements and $7.5 million needed to cover mandatory increases in health insurance and other fringe benefit costs. Suggesting that the judiciary should consider reducing its budget request by as much as $132 million, the Governor presumes that the court system can absorb these extraordinary mandatory costs. Unlike Executive Branch agencies, however, the judiciary cannot simply eliminate costly programs or defer expensive capital projects. The judiciary does not operate “programs” – it adjudicates cases. Indeed, the overwhelming portion of the judiciary’s budget – nearly 90 percent – is personnel costs. Savings of the magnitude suggested in the commentary would require the elimination, mainly through layoffs, of approximately 2,000 court employees. This would have a devastating and irreparable impact on the courts’ ability to perform their constitutional role at a time when caseloads are spiraling and the public’s use of the courts has multiplied because of the economic downturn. Judges’ ability to monitor drug offenders’ participation in treatment programs, to resolve foreclosure matters in settlement conferences and to conduct countless other proceedings on which the Governor’s own initiatives depend, would be drastically compromised.
The Governor singles out three items in the budget request that “result in increased costs.” First, the request seeks an increase in judicial salaries, at an annual cost of $48 million. A judicial salary increase, however, has been sought in the judiciary’s last several budget requests, and therefore the current request does not represent an increase in costs over last year’s request. In any event, the painful and inconceivable fact is that New York’s judges have not had a single cost-of-living increase in over 11 years, and I make no excuses whatsoever for addressing that travesty in this year’s budget request. Second, the request seeks an additional $6 million to increase the Judicial Supplemental Support Fund to $10,000. For judges who have gone so long without a single raise, this modest increase – representing less than one-quarter of one percent of the overall judiciary budget request – is wholly justified and, I must say, the very least we can do for a judiciary that meets it constitutional responsibilities each and every day under the most difficult circumstances. Third, the request seeks $15 million for civil legal services. As I noted in recent legislative hearings on this subject, no issue is more fundamental to the court system’s mission than ensuring equal justice for all. This amount will offset the precipitous shortfall in IOLA revenues, and will help in our most vulnerable citizens in their time of greatest need. For several years, the judiciary has been keenly aware of and responsive to the State’s fiscal crisis. As a result, we submitted a zero-increase budget request last year, we eliminated several hundred positions in the courts during the current fiscal year and we are well into our second year of a strict hiring freeze for administrative positions. In those respects we have been ahead of the Executive Branch. The judiciary remains committed to working with the Executive and Legislative Branches to address the serious challenges confronting our State.