After seven months of intensive study, the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts determined that the current court structure is one of the most archaic and bizarrely complicated systems in the nation. The inefficiencies created by the system’s convoluted web of trial courts cause pain and hardship for the most vulnerable citizens and cost litigants and the state over $500 million every year.
The current system consists of eleven separate but overlapping trial courts: the Supreme Court, which sits in all sixty-two counties statewide; the Court of Claims, which likewise sits statewide; Surrogate’s Courts in each county; County Courts in each county outside New York City; Family Courts in New York City and in each of the fifty-seven counties outside the City; a New York City Civil Court; a New York City Criminal Court; District Courts for parts of Long Island; a separate City Court for each of the sixty-one cities outside New York City; and Town and Village Justice Courts in most towns and villages statewide. By stark contrast, California, a state that has twice New York’s population, has only one trial court.
There are many practical effects of maintaining such a fragmented system. First, injured individuals, large and small businesses, and state agencies alike are often forced to litigate matters arising from the same set of facts in multiple courts and before multiple judges, wasting valuable time and money in the process. For many families, particularly poor families or those who have been victims of domestic abuse, the consequences can be even more dire. Stories of women who have to face their abuser in criminal court, seek a divorce in Supreme Court, file for an order of protection before one family court judge, and fight to maintain child custody or visitation rights before a second family court judge, illustrate the unnecessary hardship caused by the disjointed system.
Second, the overlapping trial courts and inefficient distribution of human and financial resources prohibit the judicial system from efficiently managing caseloads. Contributing to this problem is the provision of the state Constitution which limits the number of Supreme Court Justice positions that may be allocated by the Legislature to each Judicial District. Efforts to deal with the shortage of judges resulting from these artificial limitations – such as the temporary assignment of judges from the Court of Claims, County Court, Surrogate’s Court, Family Court and from the New York City Civil and Criminal Court to the position of “Acting Supreme Court Justices” (“Acting JSCs”) – provide yet another example of the problems inherent in the current system. Today, nearly half of the judges serving in the Supreme Court in New York City are Acting JSCs. The inevitable result has been the thinning of the ranks of judges in the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts to the point where those courts are chronically underserved.
For the past half-century, commissions, scholars, legislative panels and others have advanced myriad proposals for reforming the New York courts. Unfortunately, these efforts have largely been unsuccessful, not for lack of popular support, but on account of political unwillingness to change the status quo.
After months of study, the Commission published a 175-page report in February 2007, detailing its plan for reform. The Commission’s recommendations include a merger of the state’s nine trial courts, excluding the Town and Village Justice Courts, into a two-tier structure – namely, a statewide Supreme Court and a series of regional District Courts. While the Commission recommended that the Supreme Court contain certain specialized divisions so as to preserve the expertise that many judges and attorneys have gained through their respective practices, the court would be one of general jurisdiction and as such, its judges would be empowered to hear all parts of the many multi-faceted cases that are filed each year – whether involving family matters, complex business disputes, or claims involving the state. At the new District Court level, judges would preside over all civil disputes involving damage claims for $50,000 or less, as well as nonfelony criminal prosecutions and violations of local ordinances.
The Commission further proposed the lifting of the constitutional cap on the number of Supreme Court Justices, which will provide the Legislature needed flexibility to respond to the state’s growing population; and the addition of a Fifth Department to the Appellate Division, helping to alleviate the burden on the Second Department which currently includes approximately one-half of the state’s population and bears a caseload that is far greater than the other three departments.
The Commission concluded that its restructuring proposal will save $443 million per year in terms of productivity, lost wages, attorneys’ fees and related costs – money that is currently wasted on account of people having to make redundant court appearances, file unnecessary papers and briefs, and suffer through delays caused by courthouse backlogs and inefficiencies. Additionally, the Commission estimates that court merger will save the state $59 million annually through reductions in administrative costs at the Office of Court Administration, for a total savings of $502 million per year. Note that this financial analysis, and its conclusion, were independently verified and considered “conservative” by the National Center for State Courts.
In April 2007, then Governor Eliot Spitzer proposed a constitutional amendment to restructure New York’s court system that substantially mirrored that which was proposed by the Commission in February. The Commission commends Governor Spitzer for taking this important step and is confident that meaningful change is on the horizon.
Finally, the Commission made special note in its report that the Town and Village Justice Courts, which handle more than one-third of the cases filed in New York courts each year, present unique and complex issues that require further study. Noting the criticism that has been levied at the Justice Courts in recent months, but recognizing the crucial role that this local justice system plays in the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, the Commission reserved judgment and requested that its term be extended so that it may examine these courts with due care.