New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman released a statement earlier today stating that, due to budget cuts, there may be substantial layoffs in the state court system. And it now appears that all of the state’s Judicial Hearing Officers will be be taking a forced sabbatical. There are 300 former judges that work in this role that will be taking a vacation from which they may not return.
The courts had previously submitted a budget to the state for $2.7 billion. As a result of a request by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, that is now being cut by $100 million. According to Judge Lippman’s statement this morning:
As a result of this review, we are taking further austerity measures for the coming fiscal year that will result in additional savings of $100 million to the State. We will achieve this target through continued reductions in the court system’s workforce, including a hard freeze on hiring, layoffs of administrative and other non-operational personnel if necessary, and programmatic efficiencies — re-examining all non-personal service expenditures, including programs such as Judicial Hearing Officers, Town and Village Court assistance, the Judicial Institute, legal reference materials, and the like.
In an interview with the New York Law Journal after the announcement earlier today, Judge Lippman merely speculated about the loss of the JHO program:
He said in the interview that the entire judicial hearing officer program might have to be scrapped. The program employs some 300 retired judges who issue orders of protection, preside over jury selection in civil trials and otherwise relieve judges of some duties.
JHOs are paid $300 per day for their services and the program costs the state about $7 million a year, according to [Chief Administrative Judge Ann] Pfau.
But the information that I am getting out of the Bronx County Bar Association is that not only is this a done deal, but it will take place on April 1st. Whether this will be a one year hiatus or a complete closing of the program remains unknown.
Perhaps the most notable of the Judicial Hearing Officers that may be forced into retirement is 82-year-old Ira Gammerman, a former Supreme Court Justice that hit the retirement, and a long time fixture downtown at 60 Centre Street (easily one of the most famous courthouses in the nation). He acts there now in his JHO status as a sort of judicial traffic cop, sending lawyers out to pick juries when their cases come up and then assigning them to judges for trial after selection. And woe unto the lawyer who isn’t prepared, as he has a reputation of dismissing their cases on the spot. He also has continued to try cases he finds interesting if he can get the consent of the parties.
He hasheard from the best (and worst) trial lawyers in the city. He has no problem seizing the questioning from the lawyers to cut to the chase, and his familiar squint into his laptop as he sits on the bench is a familiar site to the thousands of lawyers and litigants that have passed through his carpeted courtroom. Both my father and I have taken cases to verdict in front of him (as has most anyone who is anyone who tries cases in this city).
Judge Gammerman has heard numerous high profile cases, often complex medical malpractice and commercial matters. He dismissed a large part of the Dan Rather v. CBS defamation case and tossed the case of Rosie Donnell against her publisher of Rosie magazine, where they had sued each other. Joan Collins and Leona Helmsley have appeared before him, and just month ago, the younger brother of the Sultan of Brunei came to defend his x-rated statues. Perhaps most famously, he told Woody Allen to “stop talking” because, “‘I’m the director here.”
The effect of losing the JHOs is sure to slow down the administration of justice, as judges are forced to tend to more ministerial matters that the JHOs were previously handling.
What will happen to all of these former judges? Someone will return to private practice in big firms as potential rainmakers. But my guess is that most will pour into the private arena of alternate dispute resolution. Whether they come back in a year — if the JHO program is restarted — remains to be seen. But it is clear that our judiciary is about to see a significant brain drain and the state’s litigants and bar will see a slower administration of justice.