The New York State budget passed in the overnight hours cuts $170 million from the court system that will result in hundreds of layoffs and longer waits for trials. The state’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, told the New York Times that the cuts “would require hundreds of layoffs.” He said, “It will have a tremendous impact on the system…you’re going to see delays in the administration of justice, without question.”
The cuts will hurt anyone who is depending on the court system for justice and weakens the State’s basic promise of delivering justice for all New Yorkers. Any time the government makes a change, it creates winners and losers: in this case, the losers are the poorest New Yorkers who will feel the brunt of these cuts and the employees who lose their jobs. The winners? Count the civil court defendants who avoid justice and the insurance companies that avoid paying compensation to injured New Yorkers.
And what savings will these drastic cuts produce? .1 percent of the total state budget. That’s right: these savings will result in a savings of one tenth of a penny for every hundred dollars spent. Does anyone believe that is what New Yorkers would want? In return for a potential savings of .1 percent on their tax bills, would New Yorkers undermine the judicial system?
The Impact of the Budget Cuts in the Courthouse
Chief Justice Lippman has not announced the specific cuts that he will make, but he must reduce the Court budget by $170 million. We can expect cuts to the following personnel:
- Court Clerks: These are the people who handle the paperwork of the courts. Without them, it will take longer to process cases, meaning fewer cases can be heard each day and cases will take longer to come to trial.
- Court Officers: These are the people who provide for safety and order in the courts and the courthouses. They staff the doors and the magnetometers. If you reduce personnel there, you will see longer lines just to enter the courthouse. If they reduce court officers in the courtrooms, fewer hearings can be held at the same time, resulting in more backlogs.
- Law Secretaries: These are the people who help the judge prepare orders and decisions, do research for the judges and provide general legal support. Without them, judges can handle fewer cases and will take longer with the cases they do have.
- Hearing Officers: We already know that the court system plans to eliminate virtually all of the hearing officers. These are retired judges who would help move cases along by handling jury selection and attempting to resolve cases by negotiating plea bargains and settlements so not every case required the time and money of a trial. The Daily News points out that many of these hearing officers were esteemed judges whose talents and wisdom will now be lost. “Everything is just going to take longer,” said Justice Jeremy Weinstein, who oversees the civil courts in Queens. “There’s just no way around it.”
The Impact of the Budget Cuts on the Judicial System: Justice Delayed is Justice Denied
These cuts will not be minor or superficial; they will affect the ability of the courts to operate. In criminal cases, it will take longer for a defendant’s case to come to trial. That means innocent defendants may sit in jail longer for crimes they did not commit. As backlogs develop, the jails will fill up, straining overcrowded local jails. The cuts to the court system will reduce State spending, but backlogs in the jails will cost New York City and the counties. An overflowing jail already required Suffolk County to build a new jail. Therefore, the State lawmakers will save a few bucks while costing local governments more. Taxpayers keep paying.
In civil cases such as the personal injury and medical malpractice cases that I handle, we can expect growing backlogs in bringing a case to trial. For example, once a case is certified ready for trial (by filing a Note of Issue) in the Bronx today and added to the trial calendar, it can take 18 months for that case to come to trial. With these budget cuts, we can expect that to grow to 24 months and increase to as high as 36 months. In Suffolk County, the delay will grow from 12 months to 24 months or more. The delays will grow because of the loss of court personnel, particularly the hearing officers who helped resolve many cases before they went to trial, yet those cases will now go to trial.
The cuts and delays may have another impact on plaintiffs seeking justice. As the wait for a trial increases, insurance companies may become less willing to settle cases early. After all, if they can wait three years before making a payment, why pay now? If insurers settle fewer cases early, that will delay justice for plaintiffs and further add to the backlogs in the courts.
The Budget Cuts Hit the Poor the Most
As is too often the case, these budget cuts will hurt the poor the most. The poor criminal defendant is less likely to have the money to post bail and so will sit in jail longer waiting for a trial. The poor person injured due to the negligence or recklessness of another will wait longer to receive compensation. If the person cannot work due to an injury caused by the negligence of another and cannot receive timely compensation, it may mean going without an income. If the person lacks health insurance and needs medical treatment due to the negligence of another, it may mean going without medical care.
The delays may undermine cases of the poorest plaintiffs. If a poor plaintiff requires medical attention for an injury caused by another’s negligence and lacks health insurance, the insurance company will use the lack of treatment to argue against making any payment or to reduce a settlement amount or payment. If a person’s life is threatened by medical malpractice or shortened by it, a delay in bringing a case to trial could me that the person could die before ever receiving justice.
I understand the desire of the State leaders to rein in spending. I understand the claim that everyone has to share in the cuts. Yet I wonder how New Yorkers feel about making these cuts. The savings from the court budget will undermine justice in this state, yet those savings account for .1 percent of the entire state budget. What cost justice? Our State leaders have answered the question.
I welcome your comments.