For decades, governors and lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to overhaul New York’s antiquated and fragmented court system, considered one of the most complex to navigate in the country.
A family, for example, might have to appear in state Supreme Court for divorce proceedings, in family court for related custody issues, and in criminal court if domestic violence was involved – appearing before several judges in different courts for issues that are all related.
On Wednesday, Chief Justice Janet DiFiore renewed her efforts to modernize and simplify the court system, a maze fraught with backlogs, higher costs for litigants and redundant court appearances, say supporters of her reform.
Justice DiFiore, who presides over the state’s highest court, announced a plan to effectively consolidate most of the state’s 11 trial courts into two: the existing state Supreme Court and a city court. newly created.
“We are forced to operate one of the largest and busiest justice systems in the world under the constraints of what is, without a doubt, the most inefficient, outdated, fragmented and unnecessarily complex trial court structure. of the country,” Justice DiFiore said during her annual State of the Judiciary Address. “We need to streamline and modernize our outdated structure of trial courts, but inexplicably reform is never seriously pursued.”
The plan, which is similar to a Justice DiFiore unveiled in 2019, would require the enactment of a constitutional amendment, a move up in the state Legislature. The lengthy process would require lawmakers to pass the bill two years in a row before allowing voters to weigh in on a referendum.
Indeed, previous attempts by chief justices to consolidate the courts have traditionally been hampered by politics and have faced stiff opposition from some justices concerned about how they would sit in a new system. They argue that the proposed structure would threaten their judicial independence and potentially weaken diversity efforts.
The real process of consolidating the sprawling court system would require the administrative overhaul of 1,350 state-paid judges and 15,000 court workers, such as clerks and officers, whose unions have already raised concerns.
Rallying public support around an arcane if a consequential court case could also prove difficult.
“It’s going to be a daunting task to accomplish the kind of change Judge DiFiore would like to see, which isn’t to say it can’t happen or some of it won’t happen,” the member said. Assembly Charles Lavine, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, sponsoring a bill containing the Chief Justice‘s proposals. “Some of these courts that are part of our unified court system predate the American Revolution.”
Efforts to streamline the courts have been supported by a coalition of bar associations, good government groups, legal service providers, domestic violence advocates, and even leading professional associations who consider the inefficiencies and the high costs associated with the current judicial system as a drag on the economy.
“We cannot delay this vitally important initiative if we are to achieve our most cherished ideals – ensuring public confidence in our justice system and ensuring access to justice,” said T. Andrew Brown, President. of the New York State Bar Association, in a statement. declaration.
These groups argue that the current setup has stretched the court system by requiring more than one judge to hear different cases on interrelated issues, resulting in more court appearances and a larger backlog of cases.
They say it particularly hurts families who have to divide their time between different courts and potentially spend money on different lawyers.
A report by the Committee for Modern Courts, a nonpartisan organization that supports reforms, found that the state could save at least $65 million a year in administrative costs by unifying the courts.
A separate analysis by the Special Commission on the Future of the New York Court found that streamlining the court structure could save litigants $443 million a year by reducing redundant court appearances that drive up court fees. attorney, lost wages and other costs.
Under Justice DiFiore’s proposed changes, the Court of Claims, along with county, family, and surrogate courts, would be abolished and the state Supreme Court would absorb their jurisdiction. These judges would become Supreme Court justices.
Six divisions – family, estate, criminal, state claims, commercial and general – would be created under the new version of the Supreme Court, with the aim of improving coordination and making it easier to navigate the system. (Despite its name, the State Supreme Court isn’t New York’s highest court; it’s the Court of Appeals.)
The new City Court would absorb the civil and criminal courts of New York, the district courts of Long Island, and the 61 upstate city courts. There would be no change in the town and village courts.
The plan would not change how judges are selected; some state judges are elected, while others are appointed.
But the proposal was vigorously rebuffed by associations that represent elected state Supreme Court justices. They expressed concerns about the power court administrators would have to move judges out of the districts for which they were elected, arguing that the plan would wrest control away from judges and voters.
They also argued that Justice DiFiore’s approach to overhauling the court would result in a more convoluted system.
“In addition to simply replacing the word ‘tribunal’ with the word ‘division,’ the proposal would create more complexity and confusion for voters and litigants, not less,” the associations wrote in testimony submitted to lawmakers. ‘ State in 2019, adding that they favored “a more nuanced approach that targets a discrete problem or inefficiency within the existing system in a focused and thoughtful way.
In a statement Wednesday, Justices Barbara R. Kapnick and Mary Ann Brigantti, who lead the associations, argued that the plan “would centralize power over judges and courts within the Office of Court Management, which would undermine the effectiveness and independence of judges across the state.”
The Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, held two hearings in November 2019 on Justice DiFiore’s plans to restructure the court system, but efforts have stalled since then.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and introduced the restructuring bill in the Senate, said one of the biggest issues to emerge from the hearings was whether the proposal would dilute judicial diversity.
Opponents argue that diversity on the state Supreme Court could be diluted as appointed justices, a sometimes more homogenous group, would become judges of that court. They would also become eligible for Upper Appellate Division appointments.
“I think my colleagues in both chambers think this is a unique opportunity to restructure the courts,” Mr Hoylman said. “How we encourage diversity on the bench, which is a major issue outside of New York, is a priority.”
Mr Hoylman, whose new bill has been amended to address concerns about diversity and other issues raised in the hearings, added that court restructuring is “like half a century of banging our heads against the wall “.