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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: Colleges And Lady Justice Face Emergency Budget Ax

A little more than halfway through its fiscal year and New York State is dealing with a budget that is billions of dollars in the red.  Unless something changes, that’s the way it will be for the foreseeable future.  These deficits are largely the result of the cratering state finances driven by the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic.  In addition to the staggering toll in death and sickness from COVID-19, state revenues took a nose dive because New Yorkers have not been working, or shopping, or traveling, at pre-pandemic levels.

As the tide of red ink mounted, the Cuomo Administration’s strategy has largely been to hope for a Congressional bailout.  As it waits, the Administration has “withheld” funding from government services – both those directly offered by the state and those contracted out to non-profits.  The argument is that these “withholds” are temporary but could become permanent cuts if Washington fails to act.

The governor can take these actions unilaterally under powers granted to him by the Legislature.

As a result, non-profits are laying off staff and hundreds of millions of dollars have been cut from state support for colleges.  Those cuts from the state’s “withholds,” for example, have resulted in the loss of jobs for thousands of adjunct professors.

Recently, the “withhold” plan has hit the state’s legal system.

Under current law, state judges are required to retire when they reach the age of 70.  This age was set over one hundred years ago when the productive life of New Yorkers was shorter.  In recognition of this obviously ageist practice, the courts allowed judges to stay on the bench if they passed cognitive and physical tests.  These certifications allowed judges to stay on the bench for 2-year extensions, which could be renewed until the age of 76.

The Cuomo Administration’s “withholds” strategy called for agencies to reduce spending for the court system by 10 percent.  The administrators of the state court system earlier this month decided, with little notice, to reject the renewal requests of 46 judges aged 70 or older whose terms expired at the end of 2020 and approved the requests of three such judges.

This decision to cut off these judges also results in cuts to their staffs as well.

The quick decision created a firestorm in the legal community.  Dozens of state lawmakers, bar associations, and civic groups criticized the plan.  While recognizing the fiscal problem, most argued that the decision of the court system was poorly timed and should be a last resort.  They observed that the courts have been operating on a limited basis during the pandemic and that has led to a backlog.  As the Bar Association of the City of New York commented, “These difficult times require experienced judges to cut through the considerable backlog of cases built up from the pandemic.”

Others noted that the loss of these judges would require the remaining jurists to deal with their own case backlogs as well as pick up the orphaned dockets from the loss of these four dozen judges.

Of course, that would further exacerbate delays – and impact the public (as well as the morale of those still working within the court system).  After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

The savings that is anticipated from this move still leaves the courts with a yawning gap; the plan only addressed $55 million of the $300 million “savings” called for by the governor.

It’s not at all clear how the courts decided to make this choice.  Did they consider offering early retirement to all judges in order to obtain savings, for example, as compared to taking an easier approach of just cutting short the careers of these experienced jurists whose only “failing” is that their 70th birthdays occurred this year or earlier?

Could they have waited, like the Cuomo Administration is doing, to see if the elections changed the Congressional approach toward helping the states?  If that occurs, replacing experienced judges with less experienced ones could haunt the state’s legal system for years to come.

While the “what ifs” can be debated, it is clear that experienced judges are being essentially laid off while the state faces a large backlog of legal cases.  State legislators have a responsibility to hold hearings to review this decision and ensure that the public has a better understanding of the court system’s logic, what the likely impacts will be, and how the delivery in justice in New York will be maintained.

And the public needs to hear from the Cuomo Administration about why when it comes to dealing with the budget shortfalls, only cuts are being implemented, cuts that have slashed services to those who need them, cuts that make it harder for colleges to teach, cuts that will inevitably diminish justice in New York.

It is our government.  We have a right to know.

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