February 17, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
Brooklyn, NY – The U.S. Supreme Court may be getting all the headlines this week, but there are courthouses throughout the City of New York now operating in virtual crisis mode every day — and the men and women charged with helping to keep the often wobbly wheels of justice turning, say the situation is reaching a breaking point.
Before 2010, when budget cuts and buyouts became the order of the day, there were as many as 1,750 court clerks dispatched throughout the judicial system, translating important legal documents, chasing down missing files, coordinating complex dockets, updating judges and generally making sure the public has access to the justice guaranteed to them under the law.
Despite some modest gains in years since, however, there are still only about 1,550 court clerks doing a job that has morphed considerably over time to encompass a whole host of other duties not formally associated with the original job title. The increasing demands on court clerks without benefit of additional resources, has left many on the job increasingly frustrated and worried about the public's welfare.
“The workload is huge,” Angela Rosa told LaborPress this week. “It’s impossible to get it all done. But we can’t afford to make a mistake. The documents we deal with can drastically affect the lives of the people who receive them.”
Rosa clerks out of Kings County Family Court at 330 Jay Street, where she began her career 11 months ago. Like her colleagues, the 34-year-old Long Island resident invested a significant amount of time preparing for the job. Many court clerks will tell you that they know the law better than a lot of practicing attorneys out there. But they also say that while they’ve seen court officers and judges receive pay raises reflective of the vital duties they perform, court clerks are languishing — overworked, underpaid and short-staffed.
“Every aspect of the job has changed, starting with expanded use of computers,” New York State Court Clerk Association President Pamela Brown told LaborPress. “Things that were supposed to make our lives easier, have actually made things more complicated.”
Court clerks recently began training to handle bilingual orders of protection and communication via Skype. Each new addition, while computerized, amounts to just another additional task that short-staffed court clerks must also perform.
“It frustrates most of the court clerks that I know,” Anthony Palermo told LaborPress.
Palermo also works out of Family Court on Jay Street. The 62-year-old has been on the job since 1986, and seen all the changes that have taken place over the years, and he's not happy with what's going on now.
“We’re civil servants,” he said. “We want to help people. But your time is limited. Where once I took five minutes to explain a summons, now I can only devote a minute. I don’t have the time that I used to because there’s nobody else in the courtroom but me.”
Earlier this month, Browne testified before the Joint Budget Hearing on Public Protection in Albany, in which she said courthouses are being forced to close early — with disastrous consequences to public safety. In one grim instance, Browne reported the case of a woman who was killed by her husband after unsuccessfully attempting to secure an order of protection against the man in Family Court.
Much of the blame for failing to adequately fund the court system is landing on Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive doorstep.
“Personally, I think he has his sights set higher and that may be driving some of his decisions,” Browne told LaborPress. “I think he has his sights set on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I don’t think he wants to be viewed as kowtowing to labor.”
Palermo is also critical of the governor, who recently extended an Alcoa plant in Upstate New York with almost $70 million in subsidies to keep the operation from fleeing the state.
“What about us?” Palermo said.
Without money to hire more staff, court clerks expect they will continue to be pressed into service well beyond their title — including keeping a lid on sometimes volatile litigants.
“I’m constantly monitoring people’s physical and mental demeanor,” Rosa added. “I’ve had people yell at me and use profanity, but I have to be professional.”
Despite the challenges, the freshman court clerk says that she is proud to be a public servant, and would not consider leaving the profession.
“Even though I’m exhausted and overworked, there’s a certain satisfaction I feel when I’m able to help someone,” Rosa said. “No matter how bad, I know there’s a person out there that is having a day 10 times worse than mine.”
The governor’s office has not responded to requests for comment.