Chief Judge Janet DiFiore's call during her recent state of the judiciary address to "modernize" New York's court system by reforming its complicated structure, has energized a growing grassroots effort across the state. Since her speech at the end of February, dozens of groups and organizations, including representatives from a wide variety of New York State business associations, good government groups, advocates against domestic violence, legal service providers and bar associations, have come together to form a coalition for court simplification. Legislators are also now focusing on the issue. State Senator Brad Hoylman, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, recently told The New York Law Journal, "I'm actually digging into the issue and figuring out a way to hold hearings and move these proposals forward."
The current court structure — made up of 11 separate trial courts with varying jurisdictions — is complex and costly, and adversely affects all litigants, both private citizens and businesses. It especially impacts the poor and unrepresented, who are expected to navigate the limited jurisdiction of these different courts with their different procedures and rules, in order to pursue claims (or defend against them) simultaneously in more than one forum. For example, matrimonial matters may not be heard in Family Court but only in Supreme Court, thereby leaving families with no choice but to litigate related issues in both courts simultaneously. Should there be any criminal or housing issues involved as well, those would have to be resolved in two other courts. Similarly, claims seeking damages against the state can only be heard in the Court of Claims, which has no jurisdiction over any city, county, or town government, or over any individual defendant.
The cost of all of these parallel proceedings to the court system, individual and corporate litigants, employers and municipalities has been estimated by one report to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The real cost, however, goes far deeper given that the structure has locked in a disparity in the number of judges and amount of resources among the various separate and distinct courts, disproportionately affecting courts like the Family Court, which serve vulnerable populations.
Changes in the structure of the courts should include changes to the appellate department structure and the constitutional limitation on the number of Supreme Court Justices. In 1894, when the Appellate Division's four departments were established, each covered roughly the same population. Today, the Second Department covers about one-half of the state's population and is responsible for more dispositions than the other three departments combined.
As vice chair of The Fund for Modern Courts, I have been involved in past court reform efforts such as securing more Family Court judges and raising the age of criminal responsibility, but I consider this effort far more urgent because it transcends all reform efforts. The proposal by the Chief Judge to merge the many trial courts into a two-tiered trial court system, comprised of a statewide Supreme Court of general jurisdiction and a statewide District Court with more limited jurisdiction, would provide greater efficiencies and improve the administration of justice.
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