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Chief Judge proposes massive overhaul of courts

Changes require two legislative approvals and voter OK

By: Bennett Loudon//September 27, 2019

Chief Judge proposes massive overhaul of courts

Changes require two legislative approvals and voter OK

By: Bennett Loudon//September 27, 2019//

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New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has proposed a major reorganization of the state court system that would replace a complex system of 11 separate trial courts with a simplified three-level structure.

DiFiore said in a news release that the change, which would require amending the state Constitution, will make courts easier to navigate, increase efficiency and reduce costs.

“We are long overdue to amend our state Constitution to create a streamlined trial court system, a structure organized in a manner that most effectively and efficiently addresses the modern-day justice needs of New Yorkers,” DiFiore said in the release.

New York’s court system handles an average of more than three million new cases each year. There are more than 1,350 state-paid judges, 15,000 non-judicial court employees and more than 1,800 judges in locally funded town and village courts.

No other state has as many separate trial courts that are set up in an outmoded, fragmented and needlessly complex structure. For example, if a child custody or support dispute in Family Court results in the parties wanting a divorce, the divorce proceeding must now be heard before a different judge in state Supreme Court, raising the possibility of inconsistent decisions.

The adverse impact is especially hard on low-income litigants because they can’t rely appointed counsel from Family Court when they move to Supreme Court, where their right to appointed counsel in a divorce is usually limited to custody and contempt issues.

Even if an attorney is assigned in Supreme Court, it might not be the same lawyer handling the Family Court case, leading to delays while new attorneys familiarize themselves with the matter.

In another example, a car accident victim on a state highway must bring separate damage claims in the Court of Claims against the state, where there is no right to a jury trial, but the case against the other driver is handled in Supreme Court, where there is a right to a jury trial.

Key elements of DiFiore’s plan include:

  • Consolidation of the state’s 11 trial courts into a three-level structure consisting of a Supreme Court, a municipal court, and justice courts in towns and villages.
  • Abolition of the Court of Claims, County Courts, Family Courts and the Surrogate’s Courts, and merge those judges and jurisdiction into Supreme Court.
  • Create six divisions within the newly merged Supreme Court: family, probate, criminal, state claims, commercial, and general.
  • Abolish New York City’s civil and criminal courts, Long Island’s district courts, and the 61 city courts outside New York City, and merge those judges and jurisdiction into a new municipal court in those jurisdictions.
  • Designate New York City’s housing court judges as municipal court judges, to be appointed by the mayor to 10-year terms.
  • The method of selection or election and term of office will stay the same for all judges of abolished courts that are merged into Supreme Court and municipal court.
  • Eliminate the constitutional cap of one judge per 50,000 residents in a judicial district on the number of Supreme Court judgeships that can be established by the Legislature.
  • Authorize the state Legislature to change the number of Appellate Division departments once every 10 years based on need.

The new system would be phased in over five years to allow for administrative and other changes.

The proposal would require the approval of the state Legislature during the 2020 and 2021 sessions, followed by the approval of voters in the November 2021 general election.

DiFiore’s plan has the support of a wide range of leaders in the legal community.

“The New York State Bar Association wholeheartedly supports Chief Judge DiFiore’s efforts to reorganize and modernize New York’s Byzantine court system,” Hank Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, said in a news release.

David M. Hoovler, president of the District Attorneys Association of New York, said in the release: “District Attorneys support any proposals that will make the court system easier to navigate for all citizens of New York State. The Chief Judge’s proposal does exactly that, and we urge the Legislature to give it very serious consideration.”

Jared Lusk, managing partner of the Rochester office of Nixon Peabody LLP said in a news release: “The time is long overdue for the system to be simplified. The Chief Judge’s proposal is a major step forward to allow the New York courts to deal effectively with the 21st century demands on the courts and provide equal access to justice for all New Yorkers.”

Carla M. Palumbo, president and CEO of Legal Aid Society of Rochester, said: “As providers of legal representation to low-income people in Monroe County, we work diligently every day to create an environment in our community that values dignity, equality and fairness. Access to justice is of key importance to the people we represent, and simplification of the court system will go a long way to accomplish that.”

Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley added: “This proposal will make the criminal justice system more accessible to all parties. I stand with my colleagues in the District Attorney’s Association of New York in urging the Legislature to give serious consideration to this amendment that will make the entire court system easier to navigate.”

“I support the proposal by Chief Judge DiFiore,” said Shani Curry Mitchell, who is running against Doorley for District Attorney. “Having practiced in another jurisdiction, I found New York’s court system difficult to navigate. If I found it difficult, imagine the difficulty that everyday citizens of New York have. Our court system should be simple and easily accessible.”

[email protected] (585) 232-2035

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