During the end of the legislative session, both houses of the New York State Legislature passed legislation authorizing a third Tompkins County Judge. Presently, the bill awaits Governor Cuomo’s signature. The law will come into effect as soon as it’s signed, with the election for the judgeship taking place with the general election in November. According to a press release from Tompkins County, the judge would be seated in January.
A third Tompkins County judgeship was first recommended in 2016 by the Tompkins County Municipal Courts Task Force with county legislators urging the bill to continue since then. The bill to create a third Tompkins County justice, along with three additional Supreme Court judges in New York City, were all sponsored in the State Assembly by Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, who was pleased with this bill’s passage, according to the release.
“I’m very pleased to have championed the passage of this bill by the legislature, which will create a third county court judge for Tompkins County,” Lifton said. “The number of judges has not kept pace with the growth of the county's population over the years, producing an overly heavy caseload for our judges and longer waits in jail. Increasing the number of Tompkins County court judges from two to three will result in more balanced caseloads and a more efficient court system. This legislation only allows four new judges across the entire state, and I’m extremely pleased that Tompkins County will get one of them.”
Tompkins County Court judges preside over the County, Surrogate and Family Courts, in addition to five specialized courts: Family Treatment Court, Sexual Offender Supervision Court, Felony Drug Treatment Court, Integrated Domestic Violence Court, and the new Wellness and Recovery Court, established this spring. Tompkins County Judges also have the acting capacity in assisting the Supreme Court caseload in the county.
While drafting a memo to state leaders, the county identified the specialized courts as critical to the bevy of Alternatives to Incarceration programs that are active in Tompkins County. The lack of a third judge to efficiently process cases has been noted as a major barrier in moving people through the county court system and out of jail.
Martha Robertson, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, mentioned how the county’s population has grown and should be matched in the number of judges.
“Tompkins County’s population has grown 60% in the 50 years since we last had an increase in the number of judges, and we have needed this new court to make our local criminal justice system function more fairly and efficiently,” Robertson said. “We are deeply grateful for Assemblywoman Lifton’s advocacy in making the case to Legislative leadership, together with a broad coalition including Senators Tom O’Mara and Pam Helming, Presiding Justice Elizabeth Garry and Administrative Judge Molly Fitzgerald, and many strong local advocates as well.”
Robertson said it's early to tell what new opportunities will be presented with an additional judge, but did mention that there have been ongoing discussions regarding the establishment of a veterans court or a DWI court, in the same vein as the newly-established mental health court. But those talks have been only preliminary. Ultimately, the state's decision just further shows Tompkins County that its plans to add property and expand its office space were necessary, seen recently with the purchase of properties on Sears Street.
"It's better to know now than a year from now," Robertson said. "It certainly reinforces that we need to get out of the main courthouse. It just really emphasizes that we need more space."
Senator Tom O'Mara also voiced his support. Meanwhile, Ithaca City Court Judge Scott Miller said he's grateful for the authorization of the new judge.
"The creation of a third county court judgeship for Tompkins County is an extraordinary once in a century legislative achievement,” stated Miller. “The speed of this successful lobbying effort that only just began in July of 2016 is remarkable. The need for this position was identified as essential to improving the quality of justice for victims, defendants, and families in Tompkins County. Once the new judge can get to work on the large backlog of criminal, family and civil cases, the public will see immediate and tangible benefits."