Staten Island Advance Editorial: Justice on judges
It's hard to believe that it has been four years since the state Legislature finally gave Staten Island its own, separate judicial district after decades of rejecting calls for this borough's judicial independence.
Of course, partisan politics factored heavily into that steadfast refusal. Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Assembly preferred it that Staten Island was an appendage of Brooklyn's 2nd Judicial District because Brooklynites invariably elect judicial candidates nominated by the Democratic Party.
But in 2007, the Assembly finally relented and passed a bill creating the 13th Judicial District. But they never got around to passing a bill that would give the new district an adequate number of state Supreme Court justices to do the job property.
The rule of thumb is that there should be one Supreme Court justice for every 50,000 residents. Richmond County, with roughly 500,000 residents living within the 13th Judicial District, should, by rights, have 10 justices.
Currently, four years after the district was created, the county has just four duly elected Supreme Court justices, although other judges are redeployed to serve as acting Supreme Court justices. Technically, those assignments are temporary.
With the state facing deficits as far as the eye can see, some would say it's probably not the ideal time to be demanding six additional justices, whose costs, between salary and support, come to about $1 million per judge annually. That's not an expense the cash-strapped state wants to take on right now.
But, say Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) and Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Mid-Island), the state has seldom lived up to its responsibilities in this area — first by denying Staten Island its own district for years, then by refusing to fill out the roster of state Supreme Court justice slots in that district.
That has led to a sluggish court system as too few judges struggled to keep up with the overwhelming and growing caseload. Once again, Staten Islanders are being underserved by government.
"It's about fairness," Mr. Cusick said. "We have the district. We need the judges."
Mr. Lanza, who along with Mr. Cusick successfully pushed the legislation to allow Staten Island to break away from the Brooklyn-dominated 2nd Judicial District and create the stand-alone 13th district, said the state's failure to provide a proper number of judicial seats "undermines the original intent" of the judicial-district law.
So the lawmakers have introduced a bill that would add six more Supreme Court judgeships to the 13th District. As a sop to gain support from Brooklyn lawmakers, their bill would also create two more seats for that borough's 2nd District.
It's promising that Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the Brooklyn Democratic chairman, backs the measure and has signed on with Mr. Cusick as a co-sponsor in the Assembly. Mr. Lopez's support was critical to the creation of a separate judicial district.
With cutbacks in the state Office of Court Administration, which oversees the state's courts, it's still going to be a heavy lift. But, as we've seen, as far as the state is concerned, it has never been the right time for Staten Island to get its fair share in terms of the courts.
Despite the difficulty and the timing, we commend Messrs. Cusick and Lanza for putting this issue on the table and focusing the Legislature's attention on this longstanding injustice.
Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2011, 1:35 PM