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February 8, 2010

STATE BAR ASSOCIATION TESTIFIES AT  JOINT BUDGET HEARING

Urges State Legislature to Fund Essential Functions of New York's Courts and to Provide Necessary Resources to Ensure Access to Justice for Indigent New Yorkers 

In testimony at a Joint Legislative Public Hearing on the 2010-11 Public Protection Budget in Albany, the New York State Bar Association today urged state legislators to adequately fund civil legal services to ensure access to justice for indigent New Yorkers and to keep New York's courts functioning in an efficient manner by fully-funding the Unified Court System's recently-submitted $2.44 billion budget request for the upcoming fiscal year.

Testifying on behalf of State Bar Association President Michael E. Getnick (Getnick Livingston Atkinson & Priore, LLP of Utica and of counsel to Getnick & Getnick of New York City), State Bar Past President G. Robert Witmer, Jr. of Rochester (Nixon Peabody, LLP) reiterated the State Bar's commitment to supporting New York's court system, to advocating on behalf of the legal profession and to supporting the civil legal service needs of low-income New Yorkers.
 
"The fair and impartial administration of justice is a fundamental responsibility of government, one upon which the vitality of our democracy depends," Witmer told legislators. Year in and year out, New York's courts adjudicate millions of disputes, both great and small, and guarantee a "day in court" to all people, including the weak, the poor and the unpopular.

Witmer, noting that New York's Unified Court System is one of the largest and busiest court systems in the world, stressed the importance of a well-functioning judicial system to legislators.

"The annual caseload of the courts is at an all-time high, exceeding 4.7 million filings for the first time," Witmer continued. "Further, it is expected that the economic downturn will continue to bring additional cases to the courts.  If the Judiciary does not receive funding requested in its budget, it will be forced to reduce its workforce, potentially through layoffs, at a time when the courts' workload is increasing. Undoubtedly, this would seriously jeopardize the fair and swift administration of justice.

"It is beyond dispute that the Legislature should provide adequate funding to sustain the essential functions of the courts. Given the nature and function of the courts, and the fact they have little control over the number of new cases filed, the proposed budget is an appropriate request and we urge the Legislature to approve it as submitted, he said." 

In addition, the State Bar is issuing a call to arms, urging all Association members to write their legislators in support of the Judiciary's budget proposal.

CIVIL LEGAL SERVICES

The State Bar Association called on legislators to provide a stable and dedicated funding mechanism for civil legal services, advocating for:

1. Creating a permanent Access to Justice Fund in the state budget;
2. Identifying a state-level agency to assume responsibility for administration and oversight of the Fund; and
3. Working with the legal community to ensure that access to justice receives support, attention and priority.

The establishment of a dedicated fund promoting access to justice to the civil justice system for the indigent has long been a top priority of the State Bar.

 "The essential legal needs of more than 85% of low income New Yorkers are not being met under the current funding levels," Witmer said. "We cannot ignore a gap of this magnitude, which for many New Yorkers will mean the difference between losing a home or keeping it, suffering from domestic abuse or finding refuge from it, or gaining or losing custody of a child.  When basic human needs are at risk -those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or child custody- everyone deserves the right to counsel.  The promise of equal justice for all must extend to every person." 

Additionally, Witmer urged legislators to approve an appropriation included in the Judiciary's proposed budget that provides for a $15-million allocation to the IOLA Fund, to help offset declining IOLA revenue due to low interest rates on escrow accounts and reduced funds in these accounts due to the decline in the number of real estate transactions, and asked legislators for their assistance in working with New York's congressional delegation to eliminate the burdensome restrictions placed on the use of non-federal funds by civil legal service organizations.


PROPOSED COURT FEE INCREASES
 
The State Bar also noted that the proposed Executive Budget inappropriately links funding for civil legal services programs to increased fees imposed on those who use the courts. The Executive Budget would, therefore, increase the State's portion of the index number fee in Supreme Court, increase fees for motions and cross-motions in Supreme and appellate courts, and increase the "first-paper fee" in several lower courts.

"This proposal would further burden the court system and those who depend upon the system to resolve disputes and enforce the law," said Witmer. "Linking fee increases to programs intended to serve the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society would be the wrong approach to solving the serious fiscal problem that confronts the government.  Therefore, the Association opposes that portion of the proposed Executive Budget."


INDIGENT CRIMINAL DEFENSE
 
The State Bar Association also supports the restructuring of the delivery of indigent defense services by establishing a statewide defender office, which would include an independent Indigent Defense Commission, Chief Defender, and Regional and Local Defender Offices to ensure that low-income New Yorkers are guaranteed their constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.


JUDICIAL SALARY REFORM

Arguing that judges are critical to the delivery of justice in our society's system of government, Witmer called upon the Legislature to ensure that our judges are fairly compensated on a regular and ongoing basis. The State Bar Association supports the comprehensive Quadrennial Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Compensation initiative developed by the Judiciary that would establish a permanent mechanism for the regular salary review of officials in all three branches of government. Under that proposal, judges would receive an immediate increase, and judges, legislators and executive-branch officials would receive future cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, at appropriate intervals.

"The ability of an impoverished or unpopular individual to invoke the power of the world's most prestigious legal system to protect his or her rights is, and should continue to be, a source of great pride and great strength for all New Yorkers," Witmer concluded.  "We urge you to remain committed to protecting access to justice and to ensuring the public's trust and confidence in our justice system."

To view a full copy of Past President G. Robert Witmer's testimony, please visit www.nysba.org/WitmerBudgetTestimony.

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Founded in 1876, the 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the official statewide organization of lawyers in New York and the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. The State Bar's programs and activities have continuously served the public and improved the justice system for more than 130 years. For more information, visit us at our Web site at www.nysba.org.