Several leaders of unions representing court employees said they were not consulted about a proposal to consolidate the state’s trial courts, and one longtime union president characterized recent discussions with representatives from the Office of Court Administration as “unproductive.”
As proposed by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, the plan, which would require amending the state Constitution, would consolidate the state’s 11 trial courts by merging Claims, County, Surrogate and Family Courts, as well as their Judges and jurisdictions, into six divisions of a newly constituted Supreme Court. It would also fuse District and city courts into a new municipal courts system.
End 'Confusing Mess'
Proponents of the consolidation have said a restructuring of the courts is imperative if litigants, as well as attorneys, are to more successfully navigate what Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks called a “confusing, jumbled mess” that results in interminable delays.
But the union leaders, who met with the court system’s Director of Labor Relations, Carolyn Grimaldi, on Nov. 26, said they were unconvinced that a full-scale reorganization was warranted.
“I don’t think it’s going to speed things up,” Bill Dobbins, the president of Suffolk County Court Employees Association, said of the proposed consolidation. “There’s a backlog because there’s not enough personnel. That’s the way it is throughout the system...It goes a lot deeper that just reducing the number of trial courts.”
Mr. Dobbins said the state lost about 2,000 non-judicial positions because of budget difficulties in 2011 and 2012. Just 400 have been replaced since then, he said.
“That has a great deal to do with why the process is so slow,” he said.
Dennis Quirk, the longtime president of the New York State Court Officers Association, said that the OCA’s determination to remake the system without sounding out the unions was contemptuous.
“If they wanted our support, why didn’t they call us in and talk to us up front, make us part of the team?...Their position is, ‘We’re going to pass this bill.’” he said the day after meeting with Ms. Grimaldi, a session he called “unproductive” given, he said, that she had few answers to the union leaders’ questions and concerns.
Chief among those was that the consolidation would oblige potentially thousands of court-system employees to transfer from one collective-bargaining unit to another, he said.
“Some unions might lose members, some might gain members,” Mr. Quirk said. He said the union heads would like a provision in the proposed amendment that would retain a portion of the 1976 state law declaring the state the employer of all court personnel, namely the part guaranteeing conditions of employment.
Mr. Dobbins also said he came away from the meeting with Ms. Grimaldi with few answers.
“It’s pushing this legislation through under the guise of making it easier for people to go through the court system,” he said. ”Our fear is that they’re trying to cut staffing to alleviate their financial problem.”
OCA representatives did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But during a joint State Senate and Assembly hearing in New York City in mid-November, Judge Marks said no Judges or court staff would lose their jobs as a result of any consolidation. “We need all the employees we have,” he said. “In fact, we could use more.”
He put the plan’s cost at $13.1 million, or about one-half of one percent of the Unified Court System’s allocation.
There appeared to be widespread support for the amendment at the hearing, both from those testifying and among legislators.
But Mr. Quirk said there was notable opposition to the effort, which is the sixth attempt since the 1950s to restructure the court system.
“We get the impression there’s support in the Senate, but not so much in the Assembly,” he said, adding that the unions would “aggressively” oppose the proposal starting in January when the Legislature reconvenes.
Peter Piciulo, the president of the Court Officers Benevolent Association of Nassau County, said he and his members “have a lot of unanswered questions”—most prominently “how fundamentally it’s going to affect our membership,” given that consolidation typically involves personnel shuffles, if not layoffs.
While he said the court system could benefit from restructuring, Mr. Piciulo agreed with his colleagues that much of the logjam in the courts could be addressed by additional staff.
“We’re basically in a need to hire, basically to keep up with retirements,” he said. “We’re not gaining any ground.”
His membership, currently at 813 and including Officers, Sergeants, Clerks, Reporters and Interpreters among nearly 100 titles, is down about 20 percent, on average, from 2008, he said.
Mr. Piciulo said that for the time being, the plan is too vague for him to support it. “I can’t get behind it right now,” he said.
'Not How You Do It'
Like his fellow union presidents, he said he found out about the consolidation plan via a release from OCA. “It just came out of the blue on us,” he said. “That’s just not how you conduct business.”
For the consolidation to take place, the proposal would have to clear both the Assembly and the State Senate in 2020 and again in 2021, and then be approved by voters in November 2021. It would go into effect in phases beginning in 2022.
Mr. Dobbins said he and his union colleagues were told they would receive a fiscal analysis of the plan as well as draft legislation in early January.
“Currently, we are opposed to the legislation,” he said. “Until our members are protected and our collective-bargaining units are kept in place, we’re going to be lobbying against the legislation.”
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