Contact: Andrew Rush
Director, Media Services & Public Affairs
arush@nysba.org
518/487-5530

January 2, 2008

JUDICIAL SALARIES, COURT REFORM, SELECTION OF JUDGES, ACCESS TO JUSTICE FOR THR POOR, MEDICAID REFORM, EQUAL RIGHTS FOR SAME-SEX COUPLES AMONG 2008 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES FOR STATE BAR ASSOCIATION

The State Legislature in 2008 should increase judicial salaries, reform the court system and the judicial selection process, provide greater access to justice for the poor, institute Medicaid reforms, and ensure equal rights for same-sex couples, says New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) President Kathryn Grant Madigan of Binghamton (Levene Gouldin & Thompson LLP). Each of these items are among the legislative priorities that have been adopted by the Association's Executive Committee.

"Each of these priorities is crucially important to all New Yorkers," President Madigan said. "Everyone seems to agree that judges deserve a pay raise, but politics keeps getting in the way. This issue needs to be high on the agenda and a salary increase should be enacted at the earliest possible opportunity.

"Other reforms to our justice system are also needed. Changing the way judges are selected, simplifying the complex structure of our court system, and ensuring that people who cannot afford it have access to vital civil legal services would foster better public understanding of and greater confidence in our courts and the decisions they render.

"At the same time, there are certain issues of law that impact people's lives in very direct and tangible ways that we, as an association of lawyers, have an obligation to speak out on. Reforming Medicaid so that families don't have to impoverish themselves to obtain care and ensuring that same-sex couples are treated equally under the law are important issues that we urge the Legislature to take up in the coming year's session."

The State Bar Association's priorities include:

1. Judicial Salary Reforms for Judges of the State of New York

Salaries for New York State Judges were last adjusted in 1999. Since that time salaries have fallen far behind federal judges, judges in other states and even behind the salaries of first-year associates in many large law firms. The State Bar Association has repeatedly urged the Legislature to give judges a long-overdue raise, so that we can continue to attract the most qualified individuals to serve on the bench.

2. Court Reform

Reforming New York's costly, overly complex court system and implementing a commission-based process for selecting judges are pillars of reform long supported by NYSBA. These reforms are essential in promoting public trust and confidence in the court system. The commission-based procedure would remove the party-based political process, which enables unelected political leaders to determine the candidates, from the process of selecting judges.

3. Access to the Justice System

New York Stateonly provides funding to cover a fraction of the legal needs of indigent and underprivileged people in this state and even with the significant pro bono services provided annually by lawyers across the state, a great need still exists. NYSBA recommends the following reforms to the justice system.

  • Civil Justice for low-income consumers. Notwithstanding the clear societal benefits of providing counsel to the poor, there is no right to counsel in civil legal proceedings involving such critical needs as housing and public assistance benefits. Adequate funding at both the state and federal levels of government is necessary to ensure broad access to the justice system for those people who are at the lowest economic strata of our society. Moreover, expanding the right to counsel to the poor in civil legal matters involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health and child custody is clearly needed.
  • Independent Indigent Defense Commission. As published reports have noted, New York's public defense system is in disrepair. The Association has strongly supported efforts such as the commission appointed by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye on the Future of Indigent Defense Services, to better implement the constitutional right to counsel in criminal defense proceedings, as proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainwright. The Association supports the findings of the Kaye Commission calling for the establishment of an Independent Indigent Defense Commission with broad powers to adopt standards, evaluate existing programs and service providers, and generally supervise the operation of New York's public defense system.

4. Equal Legal Rights for Same-Sex Couples

Under current state law, there are significant differences in the legal treatment of marital relationships compared to the relationship of committed same-sex couples in a wide range of matters, including property rights, financial support, responsibilities to children, health care, social security, long-term care, domestic violence, access to the court system and more. The Association has called for legislation that would provide same-sex couples with the ability to right this wrong and obtain the comprehensive set of rights and responsibilities now available to opposite-sex couples. Granting such rights could be accomplished by enacting a domestic partnership registry or a civil union statute, or by amending the statutory definition of marriage.

5. The Compact for Long-Term Care

The current "all-or-nothing" approach that requires individuals to be impoverished before qualifying for Medicaid is ineffective and excludes many people from the healthcare they need. The Association supports the Compact for Long-Term Care, which would provide a fair and equitable way to finance long-term care for elderly and disabled persons in New York State. It would promote personal responsibility by requiring the elderly and chronically disabled to pay a fair share of their long-term care costs but would also provide a financial subsidy for additional long-term care services, without requiring that the individual be impoverished to qualify. This initiative is designed to increase use of private funds for long-term care, while maintaining the Medicaid safety net.

6. Support for the Legal Profession

It is a longstanding tradition and policy of the Association to support proposals that promote and benefit New York's legal profession. It is vitally important to support legislative initiatives that would benefit the profession, assist those in the profession who work tirelessly to protect citizens' rights, and facilitate the lawyer's role in enhancing our system of justice. It is equally important to oppose legislation that would have a detrimental effect on these principles.

The 74,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. Founded in 1876, the Association's programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 130 years.

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