Twenty new Family Court judges will be seated statewide come January, helping to clear cases from the calenders of busy courts.
Where those judges will sit is yet to be determined, but both Schenectady and Albany counties made a state courts list of the counties most in need of one of the new Family Court judgeships.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo included $5 million for new judges in the recently approved state budget, responding to calls from Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the Court of Appeals and others for judicial relief to help keep cases moving and provide needed time and resources.
An estimated 700,000 cases are filed in Family Court statewide each year, heard by a total of 149 Family Court judges.
The cases range widely, from abuse and neglect of children to juvenile delinquency, adoption and custody issues. Paternity and child-support issues also are covered.
While it’s a start, advocates say Family Courts need more help. Even more judges are needed to keep up with demand, some advocates say. Funding must be also increased for public defenders who get assigned to a variety of Family Court cases, a public defenders association official says.
The decision on where the judges will go is expected to be made by the state Legislature by the end of its current session in June. That would give enough time for the new judgeships to make the November ballot. The money allocated for the judges starts Jan. 1.
The Office of Court Administration has put together its list of the counties it says are in greatest need of a new Family Court judge. That list is based on filings per judge and recommendations of the local district administrative judges, as well as other factors.
The list has been submitted to state legislators for consideration.
Judge Vito Caruso, chief administrative judge for the 4th Judicial District, said there is a need for a new Family Court judge in Schenectady County. Caruso’s district also includes Saratoga, Montgomery and Fulton counties and points north. Albany County is in the 3rd Judicial District.
“We’ve been an advocate for years for additional Family Court judges and county court judges throughout the district, and this is the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time to maybe get something,” Caruso said.
There are several counties in the district that would like to have another judge, Caruso said, “but probably one of the most needy is right here in Schenectady.”
The cases involving children, especially, must be heard in an expeditious manner, advocates say, and that can’t happen if a judge’s court calender is clogged with too many cases.
Locally, three counties average more than 5,000 cases assigned to a judge in a year, according to court system numbers.
Albany County and its three Family Court judges average more than 5,500 cases each year. Schenectady and its two judges average nearly 5,400 cases. Fulton County’s one judge saw an average of just under 5,300 cases.
Saratoga County and its two judges come in fourth locally with an average of just over 3,900 cases each. The numbers represent 10-year averages.
Chief Judge Lippman asked for the 20 new Family Court judges in his 2014 State of the Judiciary Address delivered earlier this year.
Lippman wrote that only one new Family Court judgeship has been created in the past decade statewide, including New York City, despite growing demand.
“It is time to do right by the children and families of New York,” Lippman wrote in his address. “It is time to ensure that these cases involving the very safety and well-being of children receive the time and resources they deserve.”
The New York State Bar Association has been pushing for more judges for some time. A report put out by the association in January 2013 made new Family Court judges a priority, citing “long delays, piecemeal trials, uneven access to justice and a public perception that the forum is ineffectual and unworthy of community confidence.”
At the start of 2012, 26 percent of the previous year’s Family Court filings statewide had been pending for more than six months.
State bar association spokeswoman Lise Bang-Jensen said that can be an eternity for a child.“For a child, waiting six months is a big portion of their whole life,” Bang-Jensen said. She said the association is pleased that the judges have been approved.
The state Office of Court Administration will advise the Legislature on where to place the judges. The office has established a committee to evaluate the need by a sent of independent criteria.
Caruso said caseloads are important, but also important are the length of time it takes from initial filing to first hearing and final result.
State Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, said he understands there is need in Schenectady.
“I think it’s a very challenging court and Schenectady, in my judgment, has a need for an additional Family Court judge,” Farley said.
Helga Schroeter said she believes the legislators need to look at the caseload numbers and need and decide where the judges will go based on that. Schroeter, of Schenectady, is a member of the board of the Committee for Modern Courts, the lobbying arm of the Fund for Modern Courts.
Prior to the budget’s passage, Schroeter was among those who spoke with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the additional judges.
Increasing the number of Family Court judges is long overdue, she said.
“Kids stay in foster care longer when their cases don’t get resolved,” Schroeter said. “In the long run, [fewer judges] really is more expensive to the state.”
Needs, however, go beyond just judges, according to Jonathan Gradess, executive director of the New York State Defenders Association. Those needs extend to public defenders and supporting staff.
Public defenders are assigned in a variety of Family Court cases, including paternity and custody cases. “Their case-loads are through the ceiling and there’s no relief for them,” Gradess said.
Schenectady County Conflict Defender Steve Signore said an extra judge can bring relief in other ways. Less time is wasted if cases are called quicker. Defenders sometimes have to sit for up to an hour and a half for their cases to be called.
About 60 percent of his office’s time is spent in Family Court, he said.
Adding judges will help, he said. “Nothing bad can come of it,” Signore said. “Only good things can come of it.”
Caruso said the 20 new judgeships approved won’t address the full problem there.
“It’s a great first step, but it doesn’t address the total need outside of the city,” he said.