NEW YORK, June 23 (Reuters) - What does $170 million in
cuts to the New York State Court system look like?
For starters, try visiting State Supreme Court in
On a recent afternoon, two lawyers, adversaries in an
automobile accident case, were squabbling over how to pick
their jury. They were waiting outside a courtroom for a free
judge to referee, but the judge was busy and it was already the
duo's third trip of the day. Frustrated by the impasses, the
plaintiff's lawyer shouted at his opposing counsel: "You are on
a different planet!"
In New York, lawyers, not judges, conduct jury selection
in civil trials. Until the spring budget cuts, disagreements
over voir dire and other jury-related issues were often settled
by judicial hearing officers, or JHOs. In some courts, some
JHOs even sat adjacent to jury selection rooms.
But in the wake of the March budget cuts, those hearing
officers - typically retired judges who worked for $300 a day -
have disappeared. Earlier this year there were about ten
hearing officers who presided over jury selection in New York
City. When the budget cuts kicked in on April 1, there were
none. While some JHOs remain, especially in family court,
cutting the hearing officers around the state saved close to $5
The hearing officers played an important, if somewhat
behind-the-scene role in the courts. In addition to voir dire,
some JHOs also oversaw discovery disputes, fights over
attorneys' fees, foreclosure cases and asbestos settlements.The
arrangement freed up full-time judges to preside over trials,
settlements and hearings in ongoing cases.
While their rulings were not final - a full-time jurist had
ultimate say - they were typically respected. Some hearing
officers, like Ira Gammerman, a retired judge, even oversaw
lengthy civil trials, an arrangement that required the consent
of all parties.
In matrimonial cases judicial hearing officers settled
complicated disputes such as how to value a major asset like a
home in the Hamptons or a piece of art, and presided over
"Some of the JHOs were just fabulous; some were as good as
having a judge," said Eleanor Alter, head of the matrimonial
practice at Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman.
Because the hearing officers did not have the same crowded
calendars as full-time judges, some could take the time to help
two sides actually settle a case, said Alter.
The Association of Supreme Court Justices initially opposed
reducing the forces of hearing officers, but became more
sympathetic after Gov. Andrew Cuomo drastically slashed the
court budget, said Phillip Rumsey, the association's
"We felt it was very important to have them, particularly
because in difficult economic times, more actions come in, and
that puts more demands on us," said Rumsey, who is a judge in
Cortland, New York. "The JHO program has helped us immensely."
The impact of the court cuts still hasn't been fully felt,
many lawyers caution. The New York City Bar Association's
Council on Judicial Administration is studying the consequences
and plans to release its findings by the fall.
William Gentile, a personal injury lawyer at Godosky &
Gentile, says he doesn't need a report to illustrate the
problem. Gentile says it took him three days to pick a jury in
a trip-and-fall case in Queens earlier this month; he had to
shuttle from one building, where the voir dire was taking
place, to the main courthouse across the street. Questions that
took 45 minutes to answer would have taken five with a JHO,
"It certainly puts more of a burden on the trial judges,"
he said. "And you are punished for trying to do a proper jury
selection because it takes so long, and by delaying it the jury
panel gets a little impatient."
As for the two lawyers who sparred at the Brooklyn
courthouse, the judge sent his law secretary to supervise
selection, and the jury was picked the following morning.
(Reporting by Carlyn Kolker)