After years of overcrowded dockets and high-profile calls for better staffing, New York lawmakers have agreed to add half a dozen to the Family Court bench along with 14 new Supreme Court justices spread across the state.
Legislation sponsored by Democratic state Senator Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Charles Lavine expands the number of judges in New York City, Nassau and Saratoga counties. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed the bill on June 30.
“Our families are suffering because of staggering case backlogs in our family courts,” Sen. Hoylman said in a statement emailed to The Imprint. “During the pandemic, New York City’s family courts were so overwhelmed that they put cases they deemed ‘non-essential’ on hold for a year. These included custody, visitation, child support, and adoption cases. How can a child’s stability or future home be non-essential?”
Hoylman concluded: “That is how desperately overstretched our courts are, and it’s unacceptable.”
Although the bill passed both chambers during the scheduled end of the legislative session on June 3, it had been unclear if and when the governor would sign the legislation. It ended up being signed along with roughly 120 other bills sent to the governor during an extraordinary legislative session which ended July 1. Hundreds of other bills still await her signature this year.
The special session was initially called to pass new gun restriction laws but ended up addressing a host of other issues, including the legislation to increase the number of Family Court judges.
The new law does not specify how much funding in the state budget will be allocated toward the new Supreme Court justices and for the four additional judges in New York City courts, two in Saratoga County and one in Nassau County. But a spokesperson for the state court system said each justice typically costs taxpayers roughly $1 million a year.
At a press conference today, Gov. Hochul vowed, “We’ll get it done.”
And she noted the urgency: “Those family court judges are critically important because so many people fell through the cracks during these two plus years.”
In total, New York state has about 1,350 paid judges with 330 elected Justices of the Supreme Court, according to a New York State Unified Court System spokesperson.
The incoming judges — whose dockets include child abuse and neglect, child support, custody and visitation, domestic violence, and delinquency matters — begin their terms in January.
“These four judges are definitely a start,” Glenn Metsch-Ampel, deputy executive director of the New York City-based Lawyers for Children said in reference to the new city judges. “We’re hoping that this is the beginning of addressing this issue systemically from session to session.”
Hoylman thanked his legislative co-sponsor Sen. Daphne Jordan (R) as well as the governor for signing his bill into law, describing it as “a long-overdue measure to support our most vulnerable children and families.”
New York state has not added judges to its court system since 2014, despite repeated cries for greater attention to the teeming Family Court system.
In 2019 in New York City alone, there were 192,000 Family Court filings in the five counties. But the city’s bar association and the nonprofit Fund for Modern Courts reported in January that caseloads are “far too large” to be handled by the 56 family court judges, even with the support of judicial officers on temporary assignment from other courts.
The pandemic exacerbated existing court dysfunction. Cases determined “non-emergencies” were set aside for months before being set for a hearing.
Jam-packed dockets, and the resulting impacts on vulnerable children and families, have long been apparent in New York. The January report found the insufficient number of Family Court judges caused delays in critical decisions for court consumers, such as where children should be placed in foster care, and when they can go home or visit with their parents.
A February NBC News report described an adoption taking 15 months instead of the more typical three months to finalize, throwing the child’s stability into a fragile state.
The bar association report described the adult brother of a child whose mother had died of COVID-19: “The attorney sought to assist the adult brother in applying for custody of the child so that he could make medical and educational decisions,” it recounted. But the “Court initially rejected the case as a nonemergency.” It took multiple attempts to have the case heard by a Family Court judge.
Court-appointed lawyers — who have not received a raise in almost 20 years and are paid just $75 an hour — have sued the city over low pay and excessive caseloads. The current compensation “deprives Family Court clients, who are disproportionately people of color, of their constitutional right to ‘meaningful and effective representation,’” legal filings argue.
In her annual address earlier this year, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore repeated her call for more funding for children and parent lawyers, saying that the current low pay has led to a “statewide mass exodus of qualified assigned counsel.” Attorneys in the Family Court are “overworked and hard-pressed to devote adequate time and resources to the clients they are representing,” she said.
Notably, state lawmakers did not address this issue in the recent budget vote, choosing instead to add judges to the bench.
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.