The approved state budget maintains funding for the courts, increases support for legal services for the poor and provides state judges with their first salary increase in 13 years, New York State Bar President Vincent E. Doyle III said today.
"The Legislature and Governor Cuomo recognize that despite hard economic times, the doors of our courthouses must be open to all New Yorkers," said Doyle of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo). "Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman has risen to the challenge of restraining spending despite growing demands on the courts."
"Regrettably, the budget diverts $4.1 million from the Indigent Legal Services Fund to support programs that, while worthy, are more appropriately funded from other sources," Doyle said.
Overall Judiciary budget
The Legislature approved the $2.3 billion budget submitted by Chief Judge Lippman, who had proposed a year-to-year spending reduction of $4 million. In contrast, the Judiciary budget enacted last year cut $170 million from Lippman's original request.
"The Judiciary will be working with a bare-bones budget. We have confidence that Judge Lippman will be able to contain spending with operational changes that will reap savings for years to come," Doyle said.
"However, we remain concerned about the long-term, cumulative impact of budgetary constraints on the judicial system," Doyle said.
In January, the State Bar issued a report on the impact of past budget cuts. Those impacts included delays in resolving emergency child custody cases, disruption of criminal and civil trials because of early court closings, and extended timeframes for scheduling civil and criminal trials. Link: www.nysba.org/CourtFundingReport.
"Adequate funding of our courts is essential," said Doyle, adding, "We will continue to monitor court funding to ensure that New Yorkers have access to justice."
Legal services for the poor
The budget includes increases for indigent legal services in criminal and civil matters.
• Indigent defense: Criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney have the right to counsel under the U.S. and state constitutions. The new budget includes $81 million for indigent defense services, an increase of $4 million for county programs. The budget also contains a provision that provides upstate caseload relief.
In a last-minute deal, budget negotiators diverted $4.1 million from the Indigent Legal Services Fund: $2 million to pay for DNA testing; and $2 million for the New York State Defenders Association, which previously was funded with a General Fund appropriation.
The Office of Indigent Legal Services will receive $1.5 million to support the fair and efficient operation of the state public defense system.
• Civil legal services: At the request of Chief Judge Lippman, the Judiciary budget provides $25 million to fund civil legal services, an increase of $12.5 million. This will provide attorneys for low-income people facing serious civil legal problems, such as the breakup of a family, apartment eviction, home foreclosure and denial of social service benefits.
• The Judiciary budget also earmarks $15 million to rescue the Interest on Lawyer Account Fund (IOLA), which uses interest collected on attorney escrow accounts to finance grants to providers of civil legal services. Low interest rates and sluggish real estate sales have caused IOLA funds to plummet in recent years.
New York's judges will receive their first pay raise since 1999. They will get a 17 percent increase this year, the first phase of a 27 percent increase over three years.
"Judicial salaries have been frozen for 13 years, which has prompted some experienced judges to leave the bench," Doyle noted. "Let's hope that the long-overdue increase sends a positive message to current and future judges."
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law a measure that expands the state DNA database and gives criminal defendants greater access to that database before and after trial. The State Bar supported these measures as important tools to improve the criminal justice system.
"We now urge lawmakers to continue on this positive path and enact additional reforms to ensure innocent people are not wrongfully convicted and the guilty are brought to justice," Doyle said.
Among those proposed reforms: requiring the videotaping of custodial interrogations to reduce false confessions; altering the way police lineups are conducted to lessen the risk of false eyewitness identifications; and reducing the discretion of prosecutors to withhold evidence potentially favorable to the defense.
The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.
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