IN THE NEWS: Staten Island Advance: Cusick, Lanza pushing for more judges here

Andrew J Lanza

May 16, 2011

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- New York state's empty pocketbook could keep Staten Islanders from getting swifter justice.
State Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) and Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island) have introduced legislation that would add six judges to the Island bench over the next three years.

But with each judge costing an estimated $1 million in salary and support costs per year, that would add $6 million to an already financially strapped state budget that is predicted to face further deficits in the future.

The new legislation would bring the borough's total of elected Supreme Court justices to 10, roughly in line with rule-of-thumb that says counties should have one judge for every 50,000 residents.

"It's about fairness," said Cusick. "We have the district. We need the judges."

Additional judges would help cases move more quickly through the borough court system, giving swifter justice to Island plaintiffs and defendants alike.

The bill would complete the work begun with the initial Lanza/Cusick legislation that created the Island's stand-alone 13th Judicial District in 2007.

While hailed as a major victory because it separated the borough from Brooklyn's 2nd Judicial District and gave the Island autonomy in nominating and electing judges, it did not add to the number of Supreme Court justices here.

Lanza said that not having the full complement of judges "undermines the original intent" of the judicial-district legislation.

While the Island has a number acting state Supreme Court justices, the borough has just four elected Supremes: Justices Philip Minardo, William Mastro, Thomas Aliotta and Judith McMahon.

Thanks to the vagaries of the judicial system, some of the acting Supremes are already on extended "certification" terms that end within the next few years, meaning they will no longer be able to serve, depleting the Island's contingent.

And as a hangover from the Island's days joined with Brooklyn, Aliotta's seat technically "belongs" to Kings County.

To fix the problem, and to get Brooklyn on board, the new legislation formally transfers Aliotta's seat to the Island while adding two new seats to Kings County.

In a sign that the behind-the-scenes politics have been worked out, Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic chairman, is joint sponsor of Cusick's bill.

"This ties up all loose ends," said Lanza. "This would finish up the math equitably. It's the fair thing to do."

Justice William Brennan, an Islander, will continue to serve in Brooklyn and his seat will continue to be counted toward that borough's complement.

Mastro, though holding an elected Island Supreme seat, serves in the Appellate Division's Second Department and does not handle cases here.

Under the legislation, two of the new judges would be elected this November; three in 2012, and one in 2013.

"We need the judges," said Minardo, the administrative judge of Richmond County. "It's critical."

He said there are about 4,000 case filings on the Island each year, with foreclosure, integrated domestic violence and mental health cases taking up more and more of the system's time. But the cost issue remains.

One member of the Island judicial system said that the Office of Court Administration, which oversees the state's courts, just took a $170 million budget hit and is looking to cut staff and overtime expenses wherever it can.

That, in addition to the fact that judges haven't had a raise in 12 years, leaves him pessimistic about adding to the Island's bench.

Justices earn $136,700 per year.

"God knows we deserve the seats," he said. "But I don't see them hiring six judges."

And others in the system dispute the $1 million pricetag, saying it costs less than that to create a new judge.

Lanza said the pricetag shouldn't be the determining factor, no matter what the cost.

"That's like saying the Police Department is expensive, so let's not have police on Staten Island," said Lanza. "There's a cost to everything."

Lanza plans to use his position in the Senate's GOP majority to push the bill. He also sits on that body's Judiciary Committee, where the bill is currently being considered.

Cusick said he is cognizant of the what the state's fiscal shape might mean for getting new judges.

"I see this legislation as a starting point for getting judges," he said. "I'm a realist. I know we're not going to get all the judges in one shot."

The bill could also face opposition from lawmakers in other parts of the state who'll want judicial seats in their own districts increased as well.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office declined to comment on the legislation.

Published: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 7:33 AM     Updated: Sunday, May 15, 2011, 7:37 AM