The New York Law Journal by Joel Stashenko - February 10, 2011
ALBANY, NY - Rebutting a suggestion that the state courts had shown "blatant disregard" of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's efforts to slow state spending, Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau warned legislators yesterday that the courts would face widespread disruptions if required to accept the 10 percent in cuts imposed by Mr. Cuomo on the agencies he controls. "We have tried to be as prudent as possible because we take very seriously what is going on in New York and…to be as fiscally careful while we continue to provide justice," Judge Pfau said at a joint Senate-Assembly hearing on the Judiciary's proposed 2011-12 budget. "We have a fundamental, constitutional duty to provide justice to the people of New York." The Judiciary is seeking to spend $2.7 billion in the year that begins April 1, a $50 million increase—or 1.7 percent—over this year. But Judge Pfau argued that the Judiciary's operating budget—the portion the court system controls—would fall by .02 percent. She said the overall increase was due to higher salary and pension fund payments to employees, spending on which court administrators have no say. Mr. Cuomo's budget calls for $133 billion in spending, a 2.7 percent reduction, and for almost 10,000 layoffs. He criticized the Judiciary in his budget message for "not participating" in his efforts to close a $10 billion gap in the 2011-2112 fiscal year (NYLJ, Feb. 2). The court budget does not project any layoffs, although Judge Pfau pointed out that there are 1,000 fewer nonjudicial employees than there were two years ago, due to last year's early retirements. She added that savings have been achieved though limiting overtime, banning non-essential travel, restricting equipment purchases and increasing the use of the Internet for remote training.
She told legislators that "thousands" of layoffs would result if the courts were forced to make further cuts of the magnitude sought by Mr. Cuomo. After the hearing, Judge Pfau told reporters that perhaps 2,000 to 2,500 layoffs would be necessary, from a workforce of 15,000. In other states, cuts like that have forced the closure of courts one day a week or one day a month or have trimmed daily hours, she said. "If we could possibly do what the governor asked, the repercussions for the citizens is they would see closed courthouses," Judge Pfau told reporters. "And while there is a budget process to work this out, to try to resolve this, to see where we end up, to go into the budget process agreeing to abandon our constitutional responsibility is not something we think we can do." Although lawmakers probed for additional cuts yesterday in quizzing Judge Pfau, they adopted a respectful tone toward the court system. "With all due respect," Assemblyman James Hayes, R-Williamsville, said before arguing that the proposed reductions in the Judiciary's operating budget are inadequate in light of the state's budget woes. "It doesn't come anywhere near what the governor has asked everyone else in the state, every other operations in state government, it doesn't even come close," said Mr. Hayes, the ranking Republican on the Assembly's Ways and Means Committee. "I'm wondering if you see that as a problem just in terms of the collaboration, where we're separate branches of government, but certainly we all go through the same budget process, in terms of the blatant disregard for the governor's call." Judge Pfau responded, "When the governor has said to us he would like us to cut 10 percent, we are talking about cutting thousands of employees. There is no way I can cut thousands of employees without shutting down the courts. … You would be shutting down the citywide courts of New York City, that's the volume [of 10 percent cuts] we're talking about, Family and Civil and Criminal courts. Or [I could] shut down the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Judicial districts."
More Cuts Sought
However, Senator John DeFrancisco, R-Syracuse, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, asked Judge Pfau whether smaller but significant savings could be achieved by scaling back non-essential programs that were instituted in better fiscal times. The senator asked specifically about the potential for savings within the child-care programs offered to litigants in Family Court. Mr. DeFrancisco also wondered if the judicial training institute at Pace Law School could be cut. He requested a list of programs not crucial to the core mission of keeping the courts open that could be cut to save money, and for statutory changes the Legislature could make to help costs. Judge Pfau said she would provide that.
Senator John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, inquired whether Mr. Cuomo's promotion of consolidating state and local government entities could work to cut the costs of the courts. Judge Pfau said a consolidation of the court system, which would require amendments to the state Constitution, could create significant savings. But the process would take at least until 2013 and, as Judge Pfau noted, would have to be approved twice by a Legislature that has shown little interest in court consolidation in recent years. Senator Michael Nozzolio, R-Seneca Falls, said he would like a better accounting of per-judge spending. Judge Pfau said budgeting for the court system is not as easy as for the Legislature because judges only have up to two employees assigned specifically to them, with the bulk of workers assigned by judicial district administrators to where they are needed most. Judge Pfau said she would work with the Legislature to make the process more "transparent." Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein, D-Brooklyn, praised Judge Pfau and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman for juggling resources to keep courts open. "The New York courts have been open every day" while courts in some states "close their doors on certain days," Ms. Weinstein said. Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman, D-Queens, a practicing attorney, said that many litigants cannot afford a lawyer but are ill-equipped to represent themselves in foreclosure, consumer credit and child-support cases. Judge Pfau said one reason the decline in the Judiciary's operating budget is not higher is because the court system is intent on including $25 million in new funding for civil legal services for the poor and $11 million to reduce the workload of attorneys assigned in New York City to represent children in Family Court. "I urge you to stand firm," Mr. Lancman told Judge Pfau of the Judiciary's budget. Mr. Bonacic questioned the wisdom of spending $23 million on a project to renovate an Albany building to create living quarters for Court of Appeals judges when they are in session. The former Centennial Hall also would house the Law Reporting Bureau (NYLJ, May 12, 2009). Judge Pfau said the money, which has all been committed, was appropriated for the project starting in the mid-2000s, when the economy was in better shape. The living quarters are scheduled to open in 2012. "If we were going to make this decision today, certainly this is not the decision we would make," she conceded to reporters after the hearing. Representatives of several organizations spoke in support of the proposed budget. They included representatives of the New York State Bar Association; Legal Services of New York City; the Fund for Modern Courts; the Legal Aid Society of New York; the New York City Bar; the Correctional Association of New York; the Empire Justice Center; and the New York State Defenders Association. The Legislature and governor are now free to make changes in the Judiciary budget, which was proposed late last year. Mr. Cuomo is bound legally to forward it as is to the Legislature as part of the 2011-12 executive budget, which he did on Feb. 1. Joel Stashenko can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.