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Family Court crunch in Essex County

October 13, 2017
By GLYNIS HART - For the News ( , Lake Placid News

SARANAC LAKE - Local lawmakers are pushing to add a Family Court judgeship to Essex County. According to state Sen. Betty Little, the county's current judge is "pushed to the limit."

The judge who hears Family Court cases in Essex County, Richard Meyer of Saranac Lake, also is an acting Supreme Court judge and sits on four other courts. With nearly 800 Family Court filings a year in Essex County, Meyer currently faces a docket of 289 cases in Family Court alone.

Other counties have stand-alone Family Court judgeships. Neighboring Franklin County added one three years ago.

"The surrounding counties already have at least one dedicated Family Court judge," said state Assemblyman Dan Stec. Stec and Little, Republicans from Queensbury whose districts include Essex County, have each sponsored legislation to add a Family Court judge there. Stec said the Essex County Board of Supervisors contacted them and asked them to act. A lack of judges can mean that cases languish for months until the judge can get to them, or that the court's attention to each case is less than it should be.

"I think they try to do the best they can," said Little. "However, a waiting list is not what we want."

"These are important cases," said Stec. "They're dealing with really difficult family situations. It could be a separated family, which is especially stressful for the children. A dedicated Family Court judge would be able to move that case along to a conclusion."

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague wrote in an email, "Being an advocate for children as a career prosecutor, I would support any solution that makes our courts run efficiently and effectively to keep these vulnerable victims safe, adult victims safe and the family units healthy and united when appropriate. They should not have to suffer because court calendars are lengthy and the lack of judges impedes the ability of relief to be granted quickly."

While the state has been gradually adding Family Court judges to the system, Essex County has been left behind. In 2014, a coalition of citizens groups succeeded in getting the state to approve 25 new Family Court judges, but when the budget came out only 20 were paid for. A second round provided more judges for a group of counties, including Warren and Franklin. Stec speculated that Essex County's lower population may have been a factor in whether it got a judge, but the geographic size of the county complicates matters. Lawyers and families involved in the court system have to travel long distances for court appearances.

"It's not an easy place to get from A to B sometimes," said Stec.

Another factor driving the need for another judge is that the workload is about to go up.

"This year we passed Raise the Age, where youngsters need to appear before a Family Court judge if they're under 18," said Little. New York state will no longer try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and will separate them from the adult prison population, as well as put their cases before a Family Court judge. These younger defendants will start appearing in Family Court after the first of the year. Even if Essex County gets the approval for a new judge, the earliest date it could happen would be in the election of November 2018, allowing a judge to take the bench in January 2019.

Stec and Little say it could come down to budget considerations.

"Although there's always a local share of the cost, I believe the judge is paid for by the state," said Stec.



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