By Daniel Wiessner
ALBANY, N.Y., Nov 30 (Reuters) - New York state court
administrators on Friday proposed a $1.75 billion budget for
fiscal year 2014 that holds total spending flat while increasing
funding for civil legal services and earmarking money for
The plan was submitted to Governor Andrew Cuomo and state
lawmakers, who have until April 1 to adopt the state budget.
"This budget reflects a careful balancing of the judiciary's
obligation to work with the other branches in addressing the
state's continuing fiscal crisis, particularly in light of the
impact of Hurricane Sandy, while also ensuring that the courts
can meet their constitutional duty to provide fair and timely
justice," Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti wrote in a
letter Friday to state officials.
The plan proposes a $200,000, or 0.012 percent, decrease in
spending from the current fiscal year, and calls for a 60
percent increase in funding for civil legal service programs, to
The proposal comes as state lawmakers grapple with a roughly
$2 billion deficit next year.
Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has made the provision of legal
services for the poor a top priority. This year, he pushed
lawmakers to double funding for the programs to $25 million.
The proposal also provides for a 4.3 percent salary increase
for state judges. Last year, they received 17 percent raises
after a panel created by the legislature recommended a 27
percent hike over three years. State Supreme Court justices had
been earning a base salary of $136,700 in 2011, which is set to
rise to $174,000 in 2014.
In 2011 the court system was hit with $170 million in cuts,
which led to hundreds of layoffs, shorter court hours and
According to the budget's executive summary, court
administrators were able to present a flat budget, despite
increases for some programs, by saving money through automation
of court operations and an expansion of electronic filing.
Courts also have cut costs by scaling back hours and not
filling positions created when employees retire. The court
system's current staffing level of nearly 14,800 is the lowest
it has been in at least a decade, according to the summary,
despite a steady increase in workload. That figure does not
"Any further reduction (in funding) would seriously
jeopardize the ability of the courts to fulfill their core
mission," the summary reads.
In addition to providing for judicial raises and increased
funding for civil legal services, the spending plan earmarks
nearly $11 million to help implement a caseload cap for legal
aid attorneys. Under the law, which takes effect in 2014,
individual attorneys may handle no more than 400 misdemeanors or
150 felonies in a 12-month period.
When the legislature passed the cap in 2009, attorneys at
the Legal Aid Society handled an average of 682 misdemeanor
cases a year, according to Steven Banks, the group's
The group has hired 175 attorneys since 2009, and the
average caseload is down to 517 a year.
"The additional funding is essential to ensure our continued
progress," Banks said.
He also praised the proposal to increase civil legal service
funding, saying demand had "increased exponentially" in the
weeks since Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc across New York City
and Long Island.
The presidents of the New York State and New York City bar
associations on Friday applauded the budget proposals in
separate statements. Seymour James, the president of the state
bar, urged state lawmakers to approve the plan "so that the
court system can maintain its basic operations."
State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Bonacic, a
Republican from Orange County, said, "I look forward to seeing
the budget enacted with appropriate support for the judges'
goals of enfacing funding for civil legal services."
The legislature will begin budget deliberations in February,
after Cuomo presents his executive budget proposals. His budget
office has called on state agencies to present zero-growth
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