New York state judicial leaders have a number of hurdles to overcome as they look to consolidate one of the largest and most complicated court systems in the nation.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore proposed a plan that would simplify the nearly unified court system, taking it 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, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks said.
“There are too many courts. It’s just an archaic sort of cumbersome structure,” he said of the nearly $3 billion system. “It’s not the best design when you’re trying to tackle backlogs and delays.”
The changes would make the courts easier to navigate, more efficient, and would reduce costs to litigants, according to the Sept. 25 announcement. The plan, which has a five-year phase-in period, could take effect as soon as fall 2021.
But it requires changes to the state’s constitution, the arduous process for which entails making it through the Legislature twice and a public vote.
Similar ideas for court reform have failed over the past few decades, the victims of politics, getting bogged down in discussions over how judges would be seated.
“This is a process and will require a lot of dialogue, and a lot of back and forth,” said Henry Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association.
New York’s court system currently has more than 1,350 state-paid judges and approximately 15,000 non-judicial court employees. The courts handle an average of more than 3 million new cases filed each year, according to system data. 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 system was created as a result of historic accumulation, Greenberg said, describing it as a coral reef adding on trail court after new trial court over more than a century.
As a result, consumers of the court system often find themselves having to navigate multiple courts, for which they need multiple attorneys and separate court appearances, he said.
A victim of spousal abuse who has children, for example, could find themselves in three courts: county court for the abuse charges, Family Court to fight for custody rights, and state Supreme Court to file for divorce, Greenberg said. “That’s madness!”
“For 40 years the State Bar has advocated for streamlining the State’s costly, overly complex and inefficient court structure, with an eye toward improving access to justice for all,” Greenberg said, adding that the association wholeheartedly supports the proposal.
The system under the leadership of DiFiore has worked for the last few years to eliminate backlogs and delays in litigation, but the structure doesn’t help, Marks said.
“We feel that a streamlined, consolidated trial court structure in New York will work so much better for the litigants, for the lawyers, and for those of us in the court system,” Marks said.
DiFiore is aiming to simplify the process, abolishing 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. New York City’s Housing Court judges would be designated as Municipal Court judges appointed by the mayor to 10-year terms.
The proposal keeps the current means of selection — be it elected or appointed — and the terms of office for all judges whose courts merged into the Supreme Court and Municipal Court. This was done to avoid getting caught up in debate on how judges are selected, a problem that held up the most recent proposal under former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, Marks said.
It also would eliminate a century-old constitutional cap on the number of Supreme Court judgeships that can be established by the Legislature. The cap limited it to one judge per 50,000 residents in a judicial district.
The amendments to the state’s constitution would have to be voted on by two separately elected Legislatures and then be put up for a public vote. State lawmakers come up for re-election every two years.
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.
Marks said they are “very optimistic” given the level of support from stakeholders so far.
The proposal may have a shot, with a Democratic majority in the state Assembly and Senate, as well as Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who appointed DiFiore.
“With a new majority in the State Senate and the support of a diverse coalition of over one hundred legal, business and community organizations from across the state, we can finally address an issue that has been blocked in the Senate for consideration for over forty years,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), judiciary committee chairman said in an emailed statement, adding that he’s reviewing the specifics of the proposal.
The Senate and Assembly judiciary committees are expected to host a hearing on the plan in November, said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D), judiciary committee chairman. “We want to listen to everybody and then think about where we go from there.”
Other stakeholders are also reviewing the plan, including the statewide association for Surrogate Court judges, whose courts would be merged under the Supreme Court.
“Nobody disagrees that there isn’t room for improvement in the court system,” said Broome County Surrogate Court Judge David Guy, who serves as the association’s president. “We just need to go through it in detail to make sure it’s going to do what it’s intended to do and improve the administration and delivery of justice for the citizens of New York.”