|Sheldon Silver, Speaker • Helene E. Weinstein, Chair • January 2006|
Letter from the Chair
In addition, all proposed amendments to the New York State Constitution are reviewed by the Judiciary Committee, even if they originate in another committee. The Committee works with the Office of Court Administration on matters involving court facilities, the Judiciary budget, and employee relations. A top priority of the Committee each year is ensuring that funding is added to the state budget for civil legal services for low-income New Yorkers. This year in addition to the approximately $4.6 million that the Assembly added, due to the efforts of the Assembly, for the first time in years, $2 million in new money for civil legal service programs has been added.
This session, the Committee also sponsored hearings and roundtables on a number of important issues, including Indian Land Claims, the Death Penalty, No Fault Divorce, Medicaid Fraud, and Eminent Domain.
The highlights that follow demonstrate the diversity and importance of the Judiciary Committee’s work in 2005.
|2005 Legislative Highlights|
Hearings Focus on Settlement of
During the 2005 legislative session the Assembly Judiciary Committee took the lead in providing a forum for public discussion of Indian Land Claim and Casino legislation. The Committee, along with the Assembly Committees on Racing & Wagering; Oversight, Analysis and Investigation; and Tourism held four public hearings in Syracuse, Monticello and Albany concerning the Governor’s proposal to allow five Indian Nations to build casinos in exchange for settlement of their land claims against the State.
Both those in favor of and those against the Governor’s proposal praised the hearings for the careful and thoughtful analysis which the Assembly Committees brought to the important issues raised by the proposal concerning economic development, job creation, the environment, and the status of the land claims themselves. As a result of the Assembly hearings, as well as important recently decided court decisions, the Governor decided to withdraw his five casino proposal. Instead he substituted a one casino proposal which, after further analysis, ultimately passed the Assembly, A.8900 (Rules, Gunther).
Pictured above is the Albany hearing. From left to right are Assemblymembers Joseph Morelle, James Brennan, Helene Weinstein, Gary Pretlow, Margaret Markey, Roann Destito, Thomas O’Mara and Susan John.
Assembly Passes Judicial Reform Legislation
The Assembly once again passed two important measures designed to strengthen public confidence in New York State’s Judiciary by helping to ensure the selection of judges with the highest standards of ability, ethics, and integrity. One bill would establish a mandated impartial screening panel process for elected Supreme Court justices and a wide range of appointed judges, A.7 (Weinstein, Silver). The other bill would create a judicial election campaign fund for the public financing of judicial campaigns, A.8 (Weinstein, Silver). Unfortunately, to date, the Senate has failed to act on either measure.
Death Penalty Law Revisited at Assembly Hearings
The Assembly Judiciary Committee, along with the Assembly Codes and Correction Committees, convened a series of important hearings throughout the State on the issue of the continued viability of New York State’s death penalty law.
Testimony was heard from passionate advocates, both for and against, and the hearings were widely lauded for providing a forum for public debate for such an important criminal justice issue.
Protecting Victims of Domestic Violence
Two measures were signed into law which better insure that victims have access to orders of protection. One bill extended an important program which permits Family Court referees to issue orders of protection in the City of New York after regular business hours. It also required that such referees be given additional Court system domestic violence training, A.8651 (Weinstein), Chapter 563 of 2005. The other measure extended an important pilot program in the Seventh and Eighth Judicial Districts, which permits Judicial Hearing Officers to assist the Courts in issuing orders of protection to the victims of domestic violence, where a sitting judge is not immediately available to do so, A.1438-A (John), Chapter 247 of 2005.
A bill which would have given the full protection of New York’s domestic violence laws to unrelated persons once again passed the Assembly, but unfortunately failed to be adopted by the Senate. The Assembly passed, by vote of 142-0, the “Access to Civil Orders of Protection” bill, A.5052 (Weinstein). Currently, New York is the only state in the nation where unrelated domestic violence victims who live or who have lived together in the past cannot obtain a civil order of protection. Moreover, New York Law does not permit couples in dating and intimate relationships to obtain a civil order of protection against an abuser, a right granted by most other states. Passage of the bill in the Assembly was applauded by the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence as well as advocates for senior citizens and young people who are the victims of dating violence.
Experts Debate No Fault Divorce At
In June the Assembly Judiciary Committee convened a special roundtable session for legal experts and interested parties to discuss a new proposal from the New York State Bar Association to allow divorcing couples the option of obtaining a divorce without the necessity of establishing legal fault. The Committee heard eloquent discussion, both pro and con, on the issue of no-fault divorce, including the impact of no-fault divorce on victims of domestic violence and non-monied spouses. Also considered was a proposal to shorten the current time period needed to convert a separation agreement into a divorce. Pictured below (left to right) are Assemblymembers Adele Cohen, Helene Weinstein, Judiciary Chair, and Assemblymember Adam Bradley listening to family law and domestic violence experts.
Protecting Children and Families
During 2005 the Committee considered many bills of interest to families. Among the most noteworthy were the following:
A.1439 (John), Passed Assembly, provides important and necessary rights for an indigent party who faces the loss of a child to adoption or the foster care system. This bill makes it mandatory that an indigent person have counsel before any proceeding involving the child can go forward. Unfortunately, the Senate has not passed this bill.
A.5101A (Galef), presently awaiting signature by the Governor, extended the duration of a marriage license from 60 to 180 days when one of the applicants is a member of the military.
A.6307 (DiNapoli), Chapter 119 of the Laws of 2005, specified the powers that a parent can grant to a non-parent who has custody of a child in regards to health care, educational, and other decisions.
Child Support Collection Measures Approved
Two effective support enforcement tools were extended until June 2007 to ensure that New York children receive the economic support they deserve. One measure which was included in the 2005-06 budget continued the revocation of drivers’ licenses for parents who fail to pay child support for four months or more. The other enforcement measure extended state tax department involvement in the collection of child support for parents who are four or more months in arrears.
Also, the Assembly passed A.8112A (Weinstein), Chapter 576 of the Laws of 2005, which clarifies the jurisdiction of child support magistrates after an order of filiation has been issued in a paternity or child support proceeding by a competent judge.
HMO Accountability Bill Passes Assembly
The Assembly has again passed a bill making HMOs legally accountable for the decisions they make A.5408 (Gottfried). At present, HMOs are insulated from liability for the consequences of their actions if they deny needed care in order to save themselves having to pay claims. This bill would make HMOs responsible for the health care related decisions they make, just like any provider of services would be responsible for deviations from commonly accepted practice in the field of medicine.
New Funding for Civil Legal Services
For the first time in many years, the Assembly was able to add almost $2 million in much needed funding for civil legal services programs. The funds were made possible by the new Legal Services Assistance Fund, which was established in 2003 as part of the law increasing assigned counsel rates. The new fund is generated by the increase in the fee collected by the Office of Court Administration for criminal history searches. This critical new aid will fund programs providing civil legal services to children, domestic violence victims and the elderly. As in past years, the Assembly was once again also able to restore approximately $4.6 million in additional funding in the State budget to support civil legal service programs throughout the State.
Guardians to Make Health Care Decisions
In 2005, the Assembly passed two bills designed to protect the rights of those unable to protect themselves. A.8274 (Rivera), Chapter 744 of the Laws of 2005, would grant to the guardians of the developmentally disabled the authority to make health care decisions under certain circumstances. A.8906 (Rivera) would make retroactive the current authority of guardians of the mentally retarded to make health care decisions. This bill presently is awaiting the Governor’s signature.
Improving the Administration of Civil Justice
In 2005, many important bills were passed by the Assembly which were designed to improve the administration of civil justice in our Courts. These included:
A.7255B (Weinstein), Chapter 452 of the Laws of 2005, standardized the procedures for commencement of a lawsuit in the lower trial courts with the practice currently in place for the Supreme and County Courts. Passage of the bill had been urged by the Office of Court Administration, due to the growing volume of lawsuits instituted in the lower courts. The bill will also make it easier for the victims of automobile accidents involving on-the-job workers to obtain justice in the correct forum.
A.4320 (Seddio), Chapter 443 of the Laws of 2005, clarified that small claims judgments shall only apply to the matter at hand and not other future cases between the same parties.
A.7561A (Cohen), Chapter 457 of the Laws of 2005, extended and expanded for five years the authority of the Office of Court Administration to accept credit cards for the payment of certain fees.
A.8829 (Weinstein), Chapter 504 of 2005, extended the Office of Court Administration’s pilot program permitting the electronic filing and exchange of legal papers. Due to the success of this program, this bill expanded electronic filing to additional counties throughout the state.
A.8178B (Cohen) clarified that the Clerk of the Court in Supreme and County Court is the County Clerk for the purpose of starting a lawsuit. The bill sought to clear up confusion which sometimes resulted in great difficulty for persons attempting to commence a lawsuit. Unfortunately, the measure was vetoed by the Governor.
Trusts and Estates Highlights
In 2005, the Assembly passed a number of important bills in this area. These include:
A.5770 (Weinstein), Chapter 325 of the Laws of 2005, enacted the “Transfer on Death Registration Act.” The bill permits owners of securities to register them for transfer on death status. Upon the death of such owner, the securities become the property of the named beneficiary. New York’s new law will permit the use of this popular device while protecting the surviving spouse’s right of election.
A.7254 (O’Donnell), Chapter 76 of the Laws of 2005, clarified that trust property cannot be attached by creditors where a trustee has discretionary power to make certain types of payments to the creator of the trust. It is a reaction to an IRS ruling.
A.6585 (Magnarelli), Chapter 700 of the Laws of 2005, clarified that trust monies cannot be attached by creditors simply because the trustees make a disbursement to themselves under the terms of the trust for their health, education and welfare as envisioned by the IRS Code.
Real Property/Tenants Round-Up
A.1264 (John), Chapter 225 of the Laws of 2005, added to training requirements for licensed home inspectors.
A.7127 (Magnarelli), Chapter 446 of the Laws of 2005, would make void any lease provision which charges the tenant for making complaints to a building inspector.
A.7293 (Destito), Chapter 337 of the Laws of 2005, granted equity powers to the District Courts on Long Island and the City Courts outside NYC for use in disputes over real property such as in Landlord/Tenant matters. Under current law, only the higher courts have the power to issue injunctions and such courts are significantly more costly to use.
A.7345 (Tokasz), Chapter 123 of the Laws of 2005, extended the non-judicial foreclosure statute for four years.
A.8479 (Canestrari), Chapter 623 of the Laws of 2005, increased the homestead exemption — the amount of home equity shielded from creditors — from $10,000 to $50,000. This will make it possible for some people in financial difficulty to keep the family home.
Hearings Focus on Eminent Domain Laws
The Judiciary Committee took the lead in holding hearings on the ability of the State and other governmental entities to take private property for public use or economic development purposes, commonly referred to as eminent domain. These hearings examined the recent holding by the United States Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London, as well as numerous bills in the Judiciary Committee designed to reform New York State’s eminent domain laws. Also conducting these hearings with the Judiciary Committee were the Assembly Committees on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, Local Governments, and Governmental Operations.
Hearing Focuses on Medicaid Fraud
Along with the Assembly Health Committee, the Judiciary Committee convened a hearing examining Medicaid fraud in New York State. One particular focus of the hearing was a bill sponsored by Judiciary Chair Weinstein, which would make it easier for private citizens and the Attorney General to seek reimbursement for Medicaid fraud. This bill, “The False Claims Act,” A.8107, was reported by the Judiciary Committee.
|Room 831 LOB • Albany, New York 12248 • 518-455-5462|
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