Justice Denied: Ousted NY judges called back to help amid massive backlog of cases

Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the state of New York, has defended what she called a difficult, yet necessary, decision to lay off the judges up against a roughly $300 million budget hole.

News 12 Staff

Apr 28, 2021, 2:39 AM

Updated 1,146 days ago

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A father was kept from seeing his kids during the pandemic and is blaming it on the courts. His case is one of thousands that are backed up in Bronx Family Court -- but the backlog issue is much bigger.
In an unexpected turn of events, the state is looking to bring back dozens of judges who were forced to retire to help.
Bronx father Efrain Vasquez has been involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife since September, relying on the courts for a solution.
"Just imagine not speaking to your kids on their birthday...The last time I got to see them was September," he said.
There is currently a backlog of at least 17,296 cases in Bronx Family Court alone.
Parents like Vasquez have tried at least six times to get a court date, tried taking action in court, yet still have nothing.
"They denied it, basically saying it wasn't an emergency for me to see my kids immediately because they are backed up," Vasquez said. "With everything going on now, especially with the pandemic, it's messing up a lot, especially for me because I am involved with my kids."
The problem spans beyond Bronx Family Court. Team 12 Investigates first reported in January on the state's controversial decision to retire 46 Supreme Court justices, like Fernando Tapia, due to pandemic-related budget issues.
Tapia said then that the backlog will only get worse. At that time, his court alone had a backlog of 29,970 cases.
Jeff Dinowitz, the former Judiciary Committee Chair of the state Assembly, says COVID-19 has really disrupted justice.
"The court system backlog is just growing and growing because the courts haven't been open, so between the effects of COVID and this, I think we are really looking at tremendous delays in our system and that's not good for anybody," said Dinowitz.
Team 12 Investigates went back and looked at what the backlog is at now at the Bronx Supreme Civil Court. That number has since grown by at least 850 cases.
Tapia is one of eight Bronx judges forced into retirement now suing the state for age discrimination.
"When you remove the most seasoned judges, you are actually removing the engine that runs the train," said Tapia.
Janet DiFiore, chief judge of the state of New York, has defended what she called a difficult, yet necessary, decision to lay off the judges up against a roughly $300 million budget hole.
"It has allowed us to move forward without laying off any members of our court staff," she said.
But in a twist, Chief Judge DiFiore announced a reversal on April 14 after months of fighting in court to get rid of the judges.
She claims the state now has the money to keep the judges. The state budget for the new fiscal year came as DiFiore says housing and family courts have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
"The return of highly experienced judges to the bench will help us tackle these backlogs and meet the increased demand of justice services in those critically important courts," said DiFiore.
Between the Bronx and Brooklyn alone, family court, Supreme Court and criminal court all account for a total of over 150,000 pending cases.
DiFiore says even though the pandemic has taken a toll, the courts have been proactive and have adapted to an unprecedented situation.
Last spring when new case filings were temporarily suspended, the courts prioritized the large backlog of undecided civil motions in Supreme Court.
They created 11 virtual court parts to handle tens of thousands of emergency matters in New York City family court alone.
DiFiore says there is still a difficult road ahead and further budget cuts could result in delayed justice in courtrooms for years to come.
Vasquez says not seeing his kids is an emergency to him, and he is hoping his case be one of the many rectified in family court. But the court has already told him that with the backlog, he may be waiting until the end of the year.
It is not clear how many of these judges will return to help with the caseload.
DiFiore says by May 24, the courts will be returning to normal in-house staffing levels.
She says a return to full staffing does not mean courthouses will be crowded. They are still focusing on limiting the number of people physically present by relying on the permanent use of remote technology and virtual appearances for certain matters.


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