Consolidating New York state’s court system would cost $13.1 million annually, but potentially save litigants $14.8 million in travel expenses, a new analysis says.
The New York Unified Court System, one of the largest and most complicated court systems in the nation, Nov. 21 released a report on the fiscal impact of a simplification plan proposed in September by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.
The plan, which includes a five-year phase-in period, would take the court system from 11 trial courts down to three levels—a supreme court, municipal court, and justice courts serving towns and villages.
New York is the only state in the country with 11 courts, system officials said. It could take effect as soon as fall 2021.
“This is a proposal that is all about making the court system run more efficiently and without a doubt there will be savings to litigants,” Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said Nov. 21 at a public hearing on the proposal in Albany. “There will be savings in attorneys fees, there will be savings in lost days at work.”
Consolidation at a Cost
Despite having fewer courts, the plan maintains staff levels, and adjustments in salaries would lead to an annual budget increase of less than 0.5%, or $13.1 million once fully implemented in fiscal year 2027-28, according to the court’s analysis. The system’s annual budget is approximately $2.3 billion.
The increase includes $3.8 million to equalize salaries of Supreme Court justices, as well as $14.3 million for adjustments in nonjudicial staffing and in compensation for Supreme Court chamber staff, the report says.
New York’s court system currently has more than 1,350 state-paid judges and approximately 15,000 non-judicial court employees. On top of the state-paid judges, there also are more than 1,800 judges serving in the state’s locally funded town and village justice courts.
The budget increase would be offset by $5 million in savings in nonpersonal service costs, the report says.
Litigants would see significant savings, for example in travel, being spared 1 million trips to court annually, according to the report.
The analysis does not provide a monetary value on time saved by litigants as a result of the consolidation, because it would take extensive time and study beyond the court’s current ability to undertake, the report says.
Not ‘Carved in Stone’
Lawmakers are currently reviewing the plan, hosting a series of public hearings.
The proposal has had backing from groups including the New York State Bar Association, who say reform is desperately needed. But it’s gotten pushback from others, including the Surrogate’s Association of the State of New York, which says the issue is more nuanced.
DiFiore’s plan would abolish the Court of Claims, county courts operating outside of New York City, family courts, and Surrogate’s Court, merging their judges and jurisdictions into the current Supreme Court. Unlike some other states and the federal system, the state Court of Appeals is the highest court, not the Supreme Court.
There would be six divisions under the merged Supreme Court: family, probate, criminal, state claims, commercial, and general.
The plan also would eliminate New York City’s Civil and Criminal Courts, Long Island’s District Courts, and the 61 city courts outside of New York City, merging their judges and jurisdictions into a new Municipal Court.
Under the merged system, the office of court administration would decide which courts the Surrogate judges preside over, said Broome County Surrogate Court Judge David Guy, who serves as the association’s president. “It takes the decision from the voters and leaves it to the office of court administration, who are not elected.”
This could lead to a loss of expertise, he said. “I ran for my job because I wanted to be a Surrogate. I wanted to preside there. I don’t want to be a Family Court judge.”
“We are not in favor of the plan as proposed, but the position we’ve taken is that there are some specific concerns and if those concerns were adequately addressed, we would be willing to get on board and support the plan,” said Guy, who also testified at the hearing in Albany.
Marks said the draft proposal is a starting point for discussion. “Nothing is carved in stone,” he said.
Consolidation would require changes to the state’s constitution, the arduous process for which entails making it through the Legislature twice and a public vote.
DiFiore is aiming to have the plan approved by the Legislature in 2020, then again under the newly elected Legislature in 2021, so it can be put before voters in November of that year.