NY Chief Judge: expect “a lot of layoffs” under new state budget

The state spending plan that was settled over the weekend will bring deep cuts to many areas of state government, not the least of which will be the courts.

The plan slashes $170 million from the Office of Court Administration, which oversees and funds all courts — from village justice courts to the Court of Appeals — and has court officials reeling over how to absorb the cuts. The reduction is roughly 6.3 percent of the court’s current budget.

State lawmakers originally wanted to cut $270 million, or 10 percent. The state’s top judge, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman (pictured, above), volunteered to cut $100 million by eliminating, among other services, courthouse child care centers, grants for town and village courts and a program that pays retired judges to work part time as judicial hearing officers.

Now Lippman and other administrative judges around the state must find ways to cut an additional $70 million in spending.

“What is clear is this will be painful by any standards,” he said. “There will be more more spending cuts, layoffs and hardship that anticipated. It will have a tremendous impact on the system.”

It’s too early, Lippman said, to know the number of court employees will lose their jobs, but he said that every kind of court employee will be be targeted for reductions.

“There will absolutely be a workforce reduction with a lot of layoffs,” he said. “There will be very significant cuts. It is a night and day difference between $100 and $170 million.”

Lippman, who lives in Rye Brook, said he didn’t yet know how the cuts statewide would affect the 9th Judicial District, which covers Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess and Orange counties. Different areas of the state would be affected differently, he said.

“We’re going to prioritize and figure out where to go from here,” he said. “I’m an optimist and I’ll do everything I can to keep the judiciary viable and strong. But this is certainly going to test us. This is tough stuff.”

New judge on MLK Jr. Boulevard

photo_courtroom_smThe newest addition to the Westchester County courthouse is Judge Albert Lorenzo, a court of claims judge formerly stationed in the Bronx, who will be hearing criminal cases here throughout 2010.

Administrative Judge Alan Scheinkman said that Lorenzo, who lives in Armonk, is “highly regarded” for his judicial ability. Scheinman sent former Westchester court of claims Judge Robert A. Neary, who lives in Pound Ridge, down to the Bronx to take Lorenzo’s spot, saying that moving judges around gives them a “different perspective.”

Lorenzo’s courtroom (for now) is on the first floor, in what used to be Judge Jeffrey Cohen’s courtroom. Cohen, who lives in Yorktown, became a state judge and was transferred to Orange County.

Photo courtesy of nycourtsystem.com

“Friending” judges and lawyers

With so many people on Facebook now, it was inevitable that conflicts would arrive with certain types of people becoming Facebook “friends” with each other. The Florida court system has addressed that conflict with Facebook-loving judges and lawyers, but other courts (including Westchester and Rockland) are sure to follow with some kind of policy.

Click here to read The Associated Press story about the Facebook controversy in Florida’s court.

What do you think? Should New York courts have a similar policy?

Bellantoni says goodbye (updated)

Westchester County Judge Rory Bellantoni is stepping down after six years on the bench, effective June 8, but his next destination has been the talk of the courthouse over the past few days.

Rumors have been swirling that Bellantoni is leaving to work for White Plains civil rights lawyer Jonathan Lovett — a controversial figure whose clients all seem to be suing the county, police departments or or some form of municipal government. I spoke to Lovett this morning and he insisted that Bellantoni will NOT be working for his small law firm. Bellantoni won’t return my calls, so Lovett’s word is the only thing I have right now.

Bellantoni, a Republican, apparently is leaving over money. In his resignation letter, he said the lack of judicial pay raises has caused economic hardships on Bellantoni’s family, according to Administrative Judge Francis Nicolai. 

County and state judges make $136,700 a year. They haven’t received` a raise in 10 years.

Bellantoni made headlines in October when he exonerated Richard DiGuglielmo, who had spent 10 years in prison on a murder conviction in the shooting death of Charles Campbell of Dobbs Ferry. Bellantoni threw out the conviction after a hearing in which an eyewitness to the shooting recanted his trial testimony. In his decision, Bellantoni said Dobbs Ferry police coerced witness Michael Dillon to change his story and blasted the Westchester District Attorney’s office in a bizarre “Wizard of Oz” reference, comparing Dillon to Dorothy Gale and authorities to the wizard behind the curtain.

Bellantoni, who had been the presiding judge of sex offender court, was reassigned to civil court a few months ago – shortly after the DiGuglielmo decision – and was made an acting state Supreme Court justice. Nicolai said he needed another judge to hear civil cases in the 9th Judicial District, which includes Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Orange and Dutchess counties.

Bellantoni’s decision means he won’t be following in the steps of his father, Orazio Bellantoni, who has been on the bench for 25 years.