ALBANY — The head of New York’s court system argued during a legislative budget hearing Wednesday the agency’s decision to force dozens of Supreme Court justices to retire is legal and justified to help offset financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state Office of Court Administration decided last fall to not recertify 46 state Supreme Court justices who reached age 70 by Jan. 1, or their full legal retirement age, saving about $55 million over two years. The matter remains in litigation.
“We strongly believe this was entirely legal and was a matter of public policy and fiscal policy,” Justice Lawrence Marks, chief administrative judge of the state’s Unified Court System, testified Wednesday. “It was an extremely difficult decision, but it was entirely legal and we expect to prevail once our lawsuits are resolved in the courts.”
Lawmakers questioned 33 witnesses as part of a bicameral hearing on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2021-22 — the Legislature’s ninth of 13 this month — on public protection Wednesday.
Spending for state courts was reduced by $291 million, or 10%, to $2.25 billion for the next two fiscal years in Cuomo’s proposed executive budget, which remains largely contingent on an undetermined amount of federal COVID-19 relief.
About 90% of the court system budget covers the salaries of judges and nonjudicial staff, in addition to health, pension and other benefits, Marks said.
The decision not to certify 46 Supreme Court justices prevented the department from laying off at least 325 nonjudicial employees.
The Judiciary implemented a hiring freeze last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in 730 current vacant positions. About 15,000 nonjudicial staff members work in courthouses statewide, or 2,200 fewer employees since 2009.
“In making these reductions, we had no easy choices,” Marks said. “It made more sense to not certificate the judges than lay off the employees. That decision was motivated by operational reasons. We felt we could not afford to lose more employees on top of the attrition that’s resulted from our strict hiring freeze.”
Six of the 46 justices were men and women of color, including three from the Bronx.
“I’m not minimizing that it’s six judges of color fewer than we had in December, but fortunately, it was not a larger number than that or a larger percentage,” Marks said in response to Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, who chairs the Codes Committee.
Queens lost six judges among the 46, losing representation in a part of the state with a majority of Black, Latino and other minority residents.
It is unclear how the department could bring the justices back if the state receives adequate federal aid in a subsequent COVID-19 relief bill, as justices are considered retired from the court system.
Marks declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
Cuomo has demanded $15 billion for months as the “fair” amount to help close the state’s historic deficit over four years.
Many arraignments and court proceedings have been conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. The department supports legislation that would expand virtual routing court appearances to the state’s 62 counties.
Some lawmakers asked if the virtual procedures affected due process.
Virtual proceedings have largely been successful, Marks said.
“A lot of this experiment with virtual court proceedings will continue post pandemic and vaccination,” he added. “It’s something we’d have to look at and looking at the views of our judges on how they feel about that. We’d be interested in the criminal defense ... and the Legislature’s view on that.”
Assemblyman Charles Lavine, D-Glen Cove, argued basic interactions with people charged with crimes are inadequate during virtual proceedings, impacting defense prosecutors.
The pandemic caused a backlog of trials and court proceedings across the state and nation, despite virtual proceeding options.
Changes in state law will be required to help address the delay after the pandemic ends, Marks said, including consolidating the state’s 11 trial courts, studying and sharing data and assigning justices to focus solely on old cases.
“We’re going to have to redouble our efforts post-pandemic and focus on the older cases and collect a lot of data in high-volume counties,” Marks said. “...We have 11 separate and distinct trial courts in the state — far more than any other state in the country. It’s a complicated, redundant, byzantine process. It makes it a lot more difficult to administer to the courts.”
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, did not participate in Wednesday’s budget hearing, but released a statement urging colleagues to prioritize the statewide spike in violent crimes in 2020 and support to fund law enforcement after months of discord and at times, civil unrest, over incidents of police brutality.
Cuomo signed an executive order last June requiring the municipality representing each of the state’s 500-plus law enforcement agencies to pass a resolution adopting revised procedures with the community to rebuild trust. Law enforcement agencies that do not complete the governor’s mandate by April 1 will not receive state funding.
“[Cuomo’s] ‘reimagine’ approach completely ignores the harsh realities taking place in our cities,” Barclay said in a statement. “Homicides and shootings have skyrocketed.”
Homicides in Albany spiked 300% from 2019 to 2020, according to a statement from the Assembly Minority office. Shootings were up 110% in the capital city and the number of shooting victims increased 150% in the past year.
Shootings were up 97% in Buffalo and homicides increased by 36%. In New York City, homicides increased by 45% and shootings were up 97%
“Liberal pro-criminal policies have already proven an overwhelming failure, never more evident than in 2020,” Barclay said. “We need an immediate course correction to get these exploding statistics under control. Simply stated, any budget proposals that undermine police funding are short-sighted, dangerous and will only exacerbate the issue of violent crime in New York.”
Michael Green, executive deputy commissioner of the state Criminal Justice Services Division, testified with similar data Wednesday, and said shootings increased 75% outside New York City in 2020 with an 82% statewide increase in gun homicides.
Violent crime exponentially increased in cities across the state and nation last year. Green said the state’s controversial bail-reform law, which mandate the release of a person accused of a list of several misdemeanor crimes, have not impacted levels of gun violence.