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January/10/2013

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

Michael P. Friedman, Esq.
Friedman & Molinsek, P.C.
MFriedman@fmpclegal.com

(From the January 2013 Newsletter)

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius

“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”   Franz Kafka

“Bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of  despotism.”   Mary McCarthy

The Office of Court Administration gave us their annual holiday present in the form of their budget request for 2013-2014.  It is a stunning work of obfuscation and gibberish that pales in comparison to prior years’ honesty and detail.  For example, the budget request in 2009-2010 was 547 pages in length and detailed every program from the participation in the National Center to State Courts to the Commission on Minorities.   These fundings are nowhere to be found in this pithy 187 page report except perhaps in that undescribed $899,000 item for UCS Commissions.  Beats me where you find it. 

Maybe it is over here where it used to be under Judiciary Wide Maintenance-Undistributed.  That used to be an $8.6 million item in the 2009-2010 Budget.   Now it is a $40 million request, an increase of 60% over last year!  For what?  To quote the budget scribes: “This Major Purpose provides funding for the Civil Legal Services Program….This Program provides a means by which the State can supply continuing support to nonprofit community bodies that supply civil legal services for indigent persons.”  Say what?  Community bodies?  What are they?  And why is each program no longer described?  Because they want to spend the money any way they want, thank you.  It is, after all, under the guise of “The availability of affordable legal representation to all who come before the courts is indispensable to assuring that the Judiciary meets its constitutional mission to ensure equal justice for all.”  Who could argue with that?  Not I, said the fly.

 I have to hand it to these guys.  They are masters of what George Orwell called doublespeak.   The best example is their proclamation of a fiscally responsible, belt tightening austerity budget that lowers the request for funds from the previous year while actually increasing the request.  They really have no shame, citing everything from Hurricane Sandy (twice) to a response the “State’s fiscal condition,” the State’s “fiscal crisis” (twice) and the “State’s fiscal outlook.”  Here is their bottom line:  “The Judiciary’s General Fund Operating Budget request is $1.75 billion. The request is a decrease of $212,013 from the current fiscal year budget, a reduction of .012%.”  Nice job boys.  You see, the operative term here is “General Fund” budget, as that is just one of the sources of funding for the court system and does not reflect the actual cost to you and me.  There exist what are called  “Special Revenue Funds” that pony up an additional $216 million for the court system.  They include federal funding and attorney licensing funds.  Remember those pesky little shakedowns of $375 every two years for the privilege of practicing law?   That’s good for $25 million per year, but does not count in the OCA fiscal responsibility arithmetic gobbledygook.  So what is the bottom line for the Judicial Budget?  A whopping $1.873 Billion, an increase of $1,241,854 from last year, but who’s counting?  That sounds like a decrease to OCA, but not to me.  After all, I only have a Bachelor’s Degree in mathematics, and this kind of calculating must be reserved for the Master’s level bean counters at OCA.

 All of this begs the question, just how bloated is this thing? After all, there is a sense of entitlement of the judiciary, being a separate branch of government and all.  It originated in the 1976 Unified Court Budget Act and the changes to the constitution that became effective in 1978 created a centralized system of court management.  The excuse of course was fiscal savings as the increased need for judiciary services supposedly strained localities.  Sure.  By 2002, the New York State Unified Court System published “The Budgetary Impact of Trial Court Restructuring” estimating that consolidation of the court system would save $140.9 million to be offset by a “modest” cost of $9.5 million over 5 years for salaries and whatever for a net of about $131 million in savings (their bold lettering, not mine)!  As of 1990-1991, the budget request was $1.36 Billion and by 2005-2006 (the budget being a 406 page request), the request was for $1.537 Billion, a few hundred thousand under this year’s request.  Sounds like lots of fiscal savings to me.  You too? 

 Now, all of this could be justified if New York’s population were increasing and straining the services of the judiciary and other governmental providers.   From 1990 to 2010 the population of New York increased a tad shy of 8%, but the judicial budget has increased over 28%.  Hmmm.  OK, but all things increase in cost over time, don’t they?  Surely our fiscally conservative OCA boys will stack up well when we see the free spending ways of other states, won’t they?
 Down South in New Jersey, they ran their judiciary on $663.5 million in 2012, but they had about 45% of our population.  So, they service 45% people for 35% of the cost.  Nice.  Our other fiscally challenged sister state, California has a judicial budget for 2011-2012 of $3.669 Billion, but they service 92% more people than we do.  So they are our gold standard in fiscal silliness.  Texas has a 2013 judicial budget of $190 million, so they service 30% more people for 90% less.  But, hey, it’s Texas.  So let’s talk oranges to oranges, or more particularly Florida, which is within 3% of our population.  It spends $440 million on its court system, therefore servicing almost as many citizens as New York for 24% of the cost.

 Now, I am not the biggest fan of the good wrought by all this judicial “economy” as I have seen its effects on the decline in services to litigants, the expansion of costs to walk into the doors of the courthouse, and the diminished autonomy of the judiciary resulting in the stifling of justice and reason for the great unwashed seeking a civil resolution of  disputes.   To justify all this as a necessary cost saving approach to the delivery of legal services is laughable and dishonest.  It is now an increasingly unjustified, undocumented and unexplained request by bureaucrats for astounding sums of money that are not needed for those who do not serve the public.  That is of course just one person’s opinion, as the court system does not solicit “public comment” for its budgets unlike such burning issues as Voluntary Alternative Dispute Programs in Matrimonial Matters (December 4, 2012), e-filing Systems (November 20, 2012), Real Property Tax Rules (April 9, 2012) or a myriad of other programs that increase the tentacles of this ever growing creature.  All of this is within a system that funds Mediation Settlement Day and Annual Kick-Off (September 19, 2012), a 2012 Voter Guide that highlights mostly incumbent judges (October 23, 2012) and a slick multi color publication called “Focus on the Courts.”  Yeah, we need those, we really do.  After all, what do you expect for $1.8 Billion?  Florida?   






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