Team 12 Investigates: NYS pandemic budget cuts could force 46 judges to retire, bigger backlog of cases

The coronavirus pandemic has hit our state hard financially and now the state is trying to force 46 judges into retirement to cut costs.

News 12 Staff

Jan 8, 2021, 3:27 AM

Updated 1,252 days ago

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The coronavirus pandemic has hit our state hard financially and now the state is trying to force 46 judges into retirement to cut costs. 
The courts are now preparing to deal with more cases and fewer judges. 
Justice Fernando Tapia is one of 46 state Supreme Court justices being forced to retire in New York. 
"This is unprecedented,” says Tapia. “I would have to say this is unprecedented. This has never happened, 46 judges to be declined.” 
Now, he is one of the plaintiffs in an age discrimination lawsuit against the state. 
Tapia sits on the bench in the Bronx Supreme Civil Term, which has a backlog of at least 29,970 cases, according to the Office of Court Administration. 
New York judges are required to retire by the age of 70. But elected state Supreme Court justices like Tapia are permitted to ask for recertification for additional two-year term up until the age of 76. 
Judges are typically recertified if they are physically and mentally sound and if the courts still need them. 
Tapia was denied that extension. "No, they just said they're old, they're 70 years old, they have to go,” says Tapia. 
Tapia says this is a time of need for the court system and that 45 other seasoned judges are suffering the same fate. 
"The judges are the ones that drive the train and you cut the locomotive, what'd you do?’ says Tapia. 
Tapia is fighting back with the help of the Bronx community, which he has lived in for 60 years. The Bronx is slated to lose the most judges out of any in the state, with eight being forced into retirement. 
Former NYPD detective and current candidate for City Council District 11, Carlton Berkley, helped organize a protest outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office last month in defense of these judges. 
"These judges are from the neighborhoods, people know them, they have a connection,” says Berkley. 
The Office of Court Administration (OCA) tells News 12 that it was forced to cut the 46 judges because the courts face a 10% budget reduction due to the coronavirus pandemic. 
OCA says some newly elected justices and appointed acting judges will take up the pending caseloads the 46 judges leave behind. 
State Assemblyman and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeffrey Dinowitz stated that appointing judges from the lower courts would not be an effective solution in this case. 
"That means you are emptying out those courts, so any way you slice it, we are going to have 46 fewer judges,  46 empty courtrooms and many people are going to have to wait a lot longer,” says Dinowitz. 
He proposes increasing taxes on the wealthy and waiting for more federal relief to close the budget gap rather than getting rid of judges like Tapia, a decision getting bipartisan pushback. 
Some fear giving the OCA the opportunity to appoint more judges will result in diminishing diversity. 
Chief Judge of the State of New York Janet Difiore requested an independent review of racial bias in the court system last June. The review found that in the Bronx, where 85% of the population is non-white, only 57% of the judiciary are people of color. 
The review also stated that the election of judges tends to benefit the Black and LatinX communities. Tapia, who was elected, is one of several judges of color being forced to retire. Some judges fear giving OCA the opportunity to appoint more judges will result in diminished diversity.
There are now two lawsuits brought against the state. The judges are suing for age discrimination and citing their experience on the bench. 
A spokesperson for the OCA responded to the lawsuits with a statement saying, “There are about 46 senior judges with six-figure pensions and health benefits refusing to relinquish their positions. Their lack of shared sacrifice would result in 324 court clerks and court officers, all of whom have reported to work throughout this pandemic, being laid off..."
The judges picked up wins when a Suffolk County court hearing their case decided in their favor the last week of December. 
Justice Paul Baisley called the state’s decision to lay off the judges “unconstitutional” and “discriminatory.” 
The OCA appealed that decision and tells News 12 it believes the court will rule in its favor. 
Justice Tapia hopes the courts will make the right decision, not only for him, but more so for the people who rely on them. 
"At the end of the day, the court system is here not to satisfy lawyers, not to satisfy judges, not to satisfy police officers, but the everyday man and woman who lives, works and breathes in this community,” says Tapia.


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