The New York Times by JOHN ELIGON - April 6, 2011
Judges across New York State were told on Wednesday to shut down their courtrooms a half-hour earlier every day in an effort to cut back on overtime paid to staff members like court clerks and court officers. The request came in a two-page memorandum from Ann Pfau, the state’s chief administrative judge, days after the state budget cut funds for the judiciary by $170 million. “As we have discussed, our difficult fiscal situation requires that we reduce spending, including a significant reduction” in court staff, Judge Pfau wrote. “The ultimate number of layoffs, however, can be mitigated if we make every effort to eliminate nonessential spending.” Other than arraignment courtrooms that work into the night, Judge Pfau wrote, all court proceedings “generally should end no later than 4:30 p.m.” rather than the current 5 p.m. The change applies to both state and local courts. The memorandum also calls for the end to a longstanding practice of having juries deliberate through the lunch hour, because that too requires staff members to work, and collect overtime. There will be times when court proceedings will run past 4:30. During a trial, for instance, if a witness is expected to have about 20 or 30 minutes of testimony left at 4:30, and that witness has a scheduling conflict the next day, a judge may be inclined to allow the proceeding to go on. But to do that, a judge must now receive approval from that court’s administrative judge. Justice Michael J. Obus, the chief administrative judge for the criminal division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said he would consider requests case by case. “Judges have already been told they should avoid this if humanly possible,” he said. Judges generally saw the new policy as an imposition, though a necessary one. “Judges are self-motivated and want to get things done,” Justice Obus said. “Anything that interferes with getting things done is not welcome.” Justice Obus, who as an administrator was already aware of the impending change, already had to grant one extension — to himself. During deliberations in the trial of Leigh Morse, an art dealer convicted of fraud, a juror, as she was leaving the courtroom at 4:30 one day last month, said she would not come back the next day, Justice Obus said. That required him to question the juror, which caused the court staff to have to stay until after 5 p.m. Given the rising caseloads, the new closing time “makes no sense,” said Rocco DeSantis, the president of the New York State Court Clerks Association. It will be difficult for clerks to process the large amount of paperwork required of them in a shorter time period he said. “Our clerks are under tremendous pressure to make sure the work is done,” Mr. DeSantis said. “The public is going to be the one that suffers the most.” Dennis W. Quirk, the president of the New York State Court Officers Association, said it would be difficult for his officers to tell people who had been waiting all day for their cases to be called to return the following day because of the rigid closing time. “We’re going to have a lot of angry people,” he said. One clerk who has worked in State Supreme Court in Manhattan for two years noted at least one advantage to the new rule. “It’s great to actually get home before the sun goes down,” he said.