Since the 1950s, roughly once every decade, there have been five attempts to restructure the state’s byzantine court system. All of them failed to get traction.
Another is underway. And judging by the reception Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s proposal received during a joint State Senate and Assembly hearing in New York City Nov. 13, the outcome of this effort could be favorable.
As recommended, Judge DiFiore’s plan would consolidate the state’s 11 trial courts by merging Claims, County, Surrogate and Family Courts, as well as their Judges and jurisdictions, into six divisions of a newly constituted Supreme Court: Family, Probate, Criminal, State Claims, Commercial and General.
It also would abolish District and city courts, replacing them with a newly created municipal courts system.
The city’s Housing Court Judges would become Municipal Court Judges, and would be appointed by the Mayor to 10-year terms. Town and Village Courts would otherwise remain the same.
The changes, epochal by any measure, would require amending the State Constitution, meaning that the proposal would need to clear both the Assembly and the State Senate in 2020 and again in 2021, and then be put to voters in November 2021.
State Sen. Brad Hoylman, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it “beggars belief” to consider that through decades of effort, nothing has come of attempts to correct what he called “easily the most unnecessarily complicated court system in the United States of America.”
But Mr. Hoylman, a lawyer by training and practice, expressed confidence the consolidation could finally come to pass, given this was the first time the effort was being considered while Democrats held a majority in the Senate.
The court system counts 1,350 Judges and Justices, as well as 1,800 town and village Judges, and employs roughly 15,000 staff members to oversee three million new cases filed each year. While it is among the largest in the world, it is considered the nation’s most complex.
According to proponents of the change, including the Unified Court System, the current system is disjointed and difficult to navigate even for Judges and lawyers, but particularly for litigants.
Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks called it a “confusing, jumbled mess.”
“If this were a private sector organization...it wouldn’t last six months,” he said at the hearing.
The 11 different courts, he said, all have their own cultures, practices and jurisdictions.
As a way to illustrate the obstacles posed by the multi-level court system, the Unified Court System cited the example of a divorce case being heard in Supreme Court while a related child-custody dispute that evolved from the divorce is being heard in Family Court. The parties, including their lawyers, must make frequent appearances before different Judges, who could arrive at differing and even inconsistent decisions.
Tough to Shift Personnel
Critically, Judge Marks said, the judicial muddle makes it exceedingly challenging to redistribute Judges and staff “quickly and efficiently” when and where they are needed.
“And that is a major, if not the major, contributor to the delay to the processing of cases in the courts,” he said. He said surges in cases, such as during the foreclosure crisis, when courts were inundated with as many as five times as many cases as was typical, were a prime example. He said the court system is, “10, 12 years later, digging ourselves out of that mess.”
He said that scenario and the resulting annoyances for litigants are approximated on a daily basis. He alluded to tenants who must return to housing court several times, missing work and incurring expenses all the while. Similar frustrations happen to criminal defendants on Rikers Island waiting for trial to start. And to small-business owners contending with permit issues or infractions.
Former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who put together what he said were a half-dozen consolidation plans “not that dissimilar” to Judge DiFiore’s during his tenure, told the panel that merging the courts was “essential.”
“The maze of courts that we have leads to confusion among the public, among the lawyers,” he said. “Experienced lawyers can’t figure out our system. What do you do when you have litigants who don’t have the resources to wade through this labyrinth? What happens in my view is justice is not done and access to justice is not served.”
Patrick Cullen, the president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, said it was too early in the process to comment in detail on the proposal.
He said he was still waiting to receive information on how the proposed consolidation plan would play into collective bargaining, budgetary considerations and “diminution of the work.”
“Those three issues are foremost on our minds,” he said. “Obviously, a consolidation plan consolidates employees as well.”
The plan, which if approved would go into effect in phases beginning in 2022, is preliminarily projected by Judge Marks to add $13.1 million to the Unified Court System’s budget, or about one-half of one percent of the system’s allocation. He said no Judges or court staff would lose their jobs as a result of any consolidation.
“We need all the employees we have,” he said. “In fact, we could use more.”
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