Budget cuts caused Manhattan courts to work without officers

by | Mar 24, 2014 | Press

Article from the NY Post by Julia Marsh



A budget crunch is putting the safety of the Manhattan state court system at risk, forcing Civil Court clerks and judges to conduct hearings without the protection of armed officers, The Post has learned.

One clerk recently refused to open Justice Anil Singh’s courtroom at 80 Centre St. when there were 90 cases on the docket — including hearings involving emotionally-distraught litigants representing themselves — but no court officer to keep order, the president of the clerks union told rank and file recently.

That clerk, Martin Walsh, didn’t feel safe running the courtroom without a court officer, but he was ordered to open the doors by a chief judge, according to union president Joseph Walsh, no relation.

Martin Walsh declined to comment for this article.

“These types of problems arise every week and are growing,” Patrick Cullen, head of the 1,200-member New York Supreme Court Officers Association, wrote in a letter of protest to Chief Judge A. Gail Prudenti, warning that the constant shortage of guards is an extremely dangerous situation.

“Despite many pleas and outcries, this burgeoning epidemic continues and it must be addressed as I fear we are as close as ever before to a catastrophic incident from which we will never recover,” Cullen said in the March 12 missive.

Fresh on the minds of court personnel is a February 2012 incident involving an unhinged gunman who opened fire on an Orange County courthouse, wounding one officer.

The same day that Walsh was forced to open his courtroom, there were three other judges who had to operate without officers, according to Cullen’s letter.

Cullen demanded an “immediate solution to these troubling and dangerous issues.”

“Let us not find ourselves wishing we had a rearview mirror,” Cullen warned.

The New York State Court Clerks Association, the union group, held an emergency meeting on March 18 in Manhattan that was attended by over 100 members. They discussed protesting the three-year hiring freeze by forcing the system to a grinding halt, using obscure rules like making pro se litigants write in black ink.

One female clerk told Walsh, the union president, that she wouldn’t have opened the doors had she been in her male colleague’s shoes and asked what recourse her female colleagues had. But he said there was nothing in the union’s contract with the state that prevented them from opening courtrooms without an officer present.

The presence of officers in proceedings are simply guidelines, not law, a court spokesman said.

Further complicating matters, Gov. Cuomo has proposed that the judiciary slash its funding level by $9 million.

David Bookstaver, the spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System, expressed sympathy for the clerks.

“We agree that the safety and security of everyone inside a courthouse is of paramount concern,” he said. “We have written back to Mr. Cullen and look forward to meeting with him as soon as possible to discuss these issues.”