The state Legislature has approved a new family court judgeship for Franklin County that the county's current family court judge says is much needed.
The Senate approved a bill Friday that creates 25 new family court judgeships around the state. The Assembly passed the bill Thursday. If Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs it, voters in Franklin County would cast their ballots for a new family court judge in November.
When that person takes office in January, it will be the first time the county will have a judge dedicated primarily to family court matters. That caseload is currently handled by Judge Robert Main Jr., who covers several other courts, and other judges from outside the county are brought in on an as-needed basis.
"This is a major change in the structure of the county-level judiciary," Main told the Enterprise Friday. "We have never had a judge who did anything but all the county-level business. Now we will have two, one specifically designated for family court and one who will handle the rest of the calendar: the county court work, the surrogates court work, and I also have Supreme Court assignments."
Family court essentially handles all family-related court matters except for divorce: custody and visitation, neglect and abuse, delinquency and persons in need of supervision, family offenses, termination of parental rights, guardianship and adoption.
Main said he's been working with Assemblywoman Janet Duprey over the last three years to get a new family court judgeship. This spring, as a part of the budget process, $5 million was set aside for 20 new judgeships around the state. When that happened, Main said Duprey had him approach state Sen. Betty Little "because, given the politics of the situation, it was likely that it would have to come through the Senate instead of the Assembly."
"Betty Little was very helpful and extremely supportive, and she crafted stand-alone legislation for Franklin County," Main said.
However, when the state Office of Court Administration put out a list of 20 new judgeships, it didn't include Franklin County.
"Betty continued to work and, with some of her colleagues, was able to secure three more positions, including one for Franklin County, but to be effective next year, not this year," Main said.
Then one of the counties on the original list deferred the start of its judgeship to next year, leaving a vacancy in the bill, "and Senator Little was able to slip Franklin County into that position," Main said.
Family courts are the busiest courts in the state, seeing a 60 percent increase in appearances over the past 20 years, according to a press release from Little's office. A commission headed by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye in 2007 recommended the creation of 39 new family court judges to address the growing problem of backlogged courtrooms.
"The number of family court cases and their complexity has put a tremendous strain on the judicial system," Little said in the release. "When justice is delayed, families, especially children, are unfairly impacted and bad situations can be made worse. This is the first major addition of family court judges in three decades."
Main said Franklin County Family Court "is busy and it has become busier as a consequence of the changes in our society, as a consequence of the changes in law that make many family court proceedings more expansive and require them to be in court more often.
"As well, individual proceedings are more complex and complicated than they used to be, and all of that requires more time and attention on the part of the family court judge," Main said.
Main said having a judge dedicated to family court will allow him to give more attention to the other courts he covers, although he said he still plans to provide some family court coverage when necessary. It will also move things quicker for families, the judge said.
"We can schedule family court every day of the week," he said. "We can bring cases in for their first appearance sooner. We can schedule a trial sooner after their first appearance than we can now. It has the prospect of being an enormous benefit.
"And by the same token, by freeing me up of the family court burden exclusively, it will allow me to do the same thing, primarily in county court. We'll be able to schedule things sooner, and we'll be able, hopefully, to schedule things as they go forward more expeditiously and more promptly."
If Cuomo signs the bill, Warren County would also get a new family court judgeship, effective Jan. 1. 2016. Sixteen of the 25 new judgeships approved by the Legislature are in upstate counties. The other nine are in New York City.