New York’s Court Crisis

By Diana Filkins, Albany Government Law Review Class of 2011

Even though Governor Andrew Cuomo was able to triumphantly announce the rare, on-time passage of New York’s 2011-2012 state budget, not all parties were happy.  The New York State Unified Court System, for example, took a cut of $170 million dollars.[1]  Immediately after   the budget passed, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman portended that the budget cuts would lead to hundreds of layoffs.[2]  As of April 20, 2011, the beginnings of this prediction came true as 74 employees of the Office of Court Administration were given notice that they would be laid off.[3]  This included two attorneys and is the “court system’s first layoffs since 1991.”  Up to 500 more are expected to lose their jobs.[4]  Further, the system is already running with less employees than usual, due to an early retirement incentive which led to the retirement of 1,700 court personnel.[5]  While the court intended to fill many of these positions, the budget cuts may not allow this to happen.[6]  In an already overburdened court system, how will the budget cuts and layoffs affect the administration of justice?

Chief Justice Lippman stated that the budget cuts would have a “tremendous impact on the system.  At a minimum, you’re going to see delays . . . without question.”[7]  In 2009, 4,641,116 cases were filed in the trial courts, 447,371 civil cases were disposed of by the courts, 2,380 applications were decided by the Court of Appeals and 17,863 cases were heard by the Appellate Division.[8]  The number of cases has steadily increased over the years and will likely continue to do so.[9]  There are already too few judicial employees to do the work.  The New York Legislature has failed to create virtually any new judgeships in the past ten years.[10]  In place of new judges, courts have come to rely on Judicial Hearing Officers (JHOs), or retired judges who “relieve judges of some duties” and help out where needed.[11]  There are currently 300 retired judges working as JHOs throughout the state, each of whom makes $300 a day.[12]  They have been an immense help to the overwhelmed system.  For example, Justice Gammerman, is a JHO in New York City who has between 250 and 300 cases on his calendar, a substantial caseload for a judge who was only working part time.[13]  However, the funding to pay the vast majority of these judges has been lost, and “[o]nly a handful” of these officers will keep their jobs.[14]  The cases currently under the supervision of the JHOs will have to be redistributed, new judges will have to be brought up to speed, and there will be even fewer judges to be assigned new cases down the road.

Another significant change that the budget cuts have prompted is a mandate that courtrooms now close their doors at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.[15]  Emergency procedures can still be held until 5 p.m., if necessary.[16]  This half hour a day may not seem like much, but will add up to ten lost hours a month, per courtroom.  Further, in the past, judges had discretion to continue later into the evening if a witness was testifying or jurors were deliberating.  This is no longer allowed without prior approval from the court system.[17]  The chief administrative judge in Manhattan has advised those working under him that they should “avoid this if humanly possible.”[18]  Other courts are cutting back in other areas as well.  For example, the website for the New York City Civil Court states:

ADVISORY: As a result of budget cuts, there are changes to Civil Court’s services and hours of operation.  Evening Small Claims will be held on Thursday nights only starting the week of April 18, 2011.  On nights when Evening Small Claims is not in session, to enter our court buildings you must arrive before 3:45 PM. Clerk offices will close at 4:00 PM and our courtrooms will close at 4:30 PM.[19]

Before the budget cuts, the evening small claims court was open four nights a week.[20]  Officials state that the “slack will be taken up in civil courts during the day,” which will in turn add more to their already overwhelmed docket.[21]

In 1994, New York began to operate child care centers in some courthouses.[22]   This was an important service for families with matters before the court that could not afford day care and arrived at the courthouse with their children in tow.  Although there are currently thirty-four child care centers such as this in the state, all those that are not associated with Family Court will be closed, while those associated with Family Court will have significantly less hours as well as substantially reduced funding.[23]  Not only were the daycare centers helpful for parents, but they were also helpful to the administration of the court since children are in a “safe, supportive haven” instead of disrupting court proceedings.[24]

Finally, the budget cuts will cause cuts to “legal aid, town and village courts and mediation.”[25]  While the court system requested at least $50 million dollars “to fund civil legal services” in the budget, only $25 million was received.[26]  As one example of the cuts, Albany’s legal aid office will lose $61,730 in funding which they hope to “absorb without laying off any of the group’s . . . lawyer[s].”[27]

Chief Judge Lippman stated, “[n]evertheless, we can and will keep the doors of our courthouses fully open while fostering equal access to justice.”[28]  But with the court closing earlier in the day or ending their weeknight court sessions, it will be more difficult for New Yorkers to access the court system.  Furthermore, while the court system already experiences delays in the processing and disposition of cases, this will likely get worse.  With fewer employees and fewer hours in the day to hear cases, the backlog will grow.

Optimists are hoping that the budget cuts will force the court system to become more effective.  New York State Bar Association President Stephen Younger said that “[w]e’re hopeful that these cuts will encourage some more effective and efficient usages of time and more efficient procedures.”[29]  Others are more pessimistic, stating “[t]he only thing that makes the court system run is the people,” and there is only so much that can be done when there is an inadequate staff.[30]  So too, an efficient system must be created and overseen, something that is unlikely to happen when the remaining court staff is already overwhelmed with the additional responsibilities they will have to take on when others are laid off.[31]

[1]  Thomas Kaplan, Chief Judge Says Deal Will Require Hundreds of Layoffs in Court System, N.Y. Times, Mar. 29, 2011, at A28, available at

[2]  Id.

[3]  Joel Stashenko, Budget Cuts Buffet State Court System, N.Y.L.J. ,Apr. 21, 2011, available at

[4]  Id.

[5]  Daniel Wise, Administrators Shift Into High Gear to Fill Gap as Seasoned Court Personnel Retire, N.Y.L.J., Nov. 23, 2010, available at

[6]  Id.

[7] Kaplan, supra note 1.

[8]  N.Y. State Unified Ct. Sys., Annual Report 2009 14–17, available at

[9]  Id.

[10]  Joel Stashenko, Judiciary Promises More Budget Cuts, N.Y.L.J. Mar. 3, 2011, available at

[11]  Id.

[12]  Id.

[13]   Joel Stashenko, With Budget in Flux, Administrators Put the Brakes on Use of JHOs, N.Y.L.J., Mar. 16, 2011, available at

[14]  Thomas Zambito, Dozens of Retired Judges Working as Part-time Judicial Hearing Officers Are Laid Off,  Daily News (New York), Mar. 31, 2011, available at

[15]  John Eligon, State’s Judges Told to Shut Courtrooms Earlier to Cut Costs, N.Y. Times, Apr. 7, 2011, at A20.

[16]  Tom Precious, Courts Feel First Hits of State Budget Cuts, Buffalo News, Apr. 17, 2011, available at

[17]  Eligon, supra note 15.

[18]  Id.

[19]  New York State Unified Court System, Civil Court Schedule & Service Changes, (last visited Aug. 31, 2011).

[20]  Joel Stashenko, Small Claims Courts to Operate 1 Night Per Week to Cut Costs, N.Y.L.J., Apr. 8, 2011, available at

[21]  Id.

[22]  Joel Stashenko, Children’s Centers at Courts are Hit Hard by Budget Cuts, N.Y.L.J., Apr. 13, 2011, available at

[23]  Id.

[24]  Id.

[25]   Dan Wiessner, Layoffs Seen Having Big Impact on New York Courts, Thomson Reuters News & Insight, Apr. 18, 2011, (last visited Aug. 31, 2011).

[26]  Brendan Pierson, New York Legal Aid Groups Brace for Life After Cuts in LSC Funds, N.Y.L.J., Apr. 14, 2011, available at

[27]  Id.

[28]  Stashenko, supra note 10.

[29]  Weissner, supra note 26.

[30]  Id.

[31] Id.

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