Update (2:30 p.m. June 25) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed the legislation.
TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County is poised to be one of the few jurisdictions in New York to receive authorization for an additional county court judge after legislation passed as part of last week’s end-of-session additions to the state budget deal.
“There was great need here, judges were overburdened here,” Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, (D-Ithaca), told The Ithaca Voice over the weekend. “They have almost 300 cases and I’m glad I was able to get that done.”
The last time Tompkins County got an additional judge, its second, was almost 60 years ago. In that time, the population has increased and so has the caseload each judge has to hear and process.
“We’ve been growing since that time. We’re the only county in the 6th judicial district where the population has been growing but we have the same number of judges,” Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson said Monday.
Tompkins is the only upstate county to receive an additional judge this year, one of only three assigned by the state. It’s up to the state legislature to decide where it will appropriate funding for judges, making it an often tough battle amongst legislators.
“That’s certainly one of the most important accomplishments for me for the session and for the Tompkins County,” Lifton said.
Not only could the additional judge provide caseload relief but also shorten the time defendants spend waiting for the court to hear their cases and administer their rulings.
Tompkins County District Attorney Matthew Van Houten, who prosecutes most cases before the court admitted the addition of another justice will likely increase his office’s workload, but said he believes the addition is in the best interest of the community.
“The third judge will provide for a shorter timeline for felony cases, which will enhance our ability to meet our constitutional obligations to criminal defendants and result in shorter periods of pretrial incarceration,” Van Houten said in an email Monday. “It will provide closure much more efficiently for victims of serious felonies.”
In addition to handling general criminal caseloads, Tompkins County’s judges oversee a number of specialized courts including Family Court, Integrated Domestic Violence Court and Drug Treatment Court.
Robertson said she hopes adding a third judge will help to lower the jail population and enhance these specialized courts to help people recover.
In 2016, a Tompkins County Municipal Courts Task Force reviewed the local court system and one of the recommendations was to add another county judge.
Ithaca Attorney Raymond Schlather, who led the task force, said in a news release that the additional judge will relieve some of the pressure on the local criminal justice system.
“It is a critical step in implementing some of the recommendations of the Task Force,” he said. “At the end of the day, everyone in our community will be better served because of this development. Although the Task Force may have made the case for a third County Judge, it only is happening because of the collective efforts of many key community leaders.”
The county does have to provide some resources to allow the judge to sit. While the major costs, almost $1 million for personnel are covered by the state, the county has to provide a physical facility for them and carry out an election to decide who sits there.
“This is great, we’ll figure it out and we’re happy to have this challenge so we can get this person in place as soon as possible,” Robertson said.
The state provided for the judge starting January 1, 2020, meaning the county has just over six months to get those plans in place. Robertson said she’s contacted the Tompkins County Board of Elections which will likely have to set up a petitioning and primary process to get candidates for the 10-year office on a ballot before November. What’s left is for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign the legislation.