On November 13 and 21, 2019, the New York State Assembly and Senate will hold joint hearings on the court simplification reforms proposed by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. The proposed amendment to the State Constitution would streamline the court system by:

  • Consolidating New York’s 11 trial courts into three tiers: Supreme Court, Municipal Court, and Justice Courts. The Court of Claims, County Courts, Family Courts, and Surrogate Courts would be abolished and merged into a Supreme Court that would consist of six divisions: family, probate, criminal, state claims, commercial, and general. New York City’s Civil and Criminal Courts, Long Island’s District Courts, and the 61 City Courts outside of New York City would likewise be abolished and merged into a new Municipal Court.  The proposed amendment does not affect the Justice Courts.  Nor would this reform affect how judges are selected (whether appointed or elected).
  • Removing the constitutional cap on Supreme Court judgeships. The court system would be able to allocate judicial resources where needed, as opposed to where they are constitutionally (and arbitrarily) apportioned.  This would reduce backlogs, such as in family court, and also result in a more diverse pool of judges at the appellate level (which would continue to draw only from the pool of Supreme Court judges).

New York is alone in maintaining such a complex court structure made up of so many overlapping trial courts with limited jurisdiction.  Indeed, other states already have embraced reform, including California, which in 1998 adopted a single trial court throughout the state. A study of California’s current judicial model, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found that court simplification resulted in:

  • Improved use of resources: judges have greater flexibility in being assigned to cases through the removal of jurisdictional constraints and greater flexibility in case type.
  • Greater efficiency of court staff: in organizing staff by function rather than jurisdiction, courts are better able to reassign excess staff and reduce overlap.
  • Greater efficiency of court operations: improved case management practices reduce backlogs and improve time to disposition, standardization of rules, and case processing.
  • Enhanced quality of service: increased accessibility of courts and more cost-effective use of staff allow for expansion of programs to serve juveniles and domestic violence survivors.

Other benefits included greater cooperation between the judiciary and other branches of government, enhanced opportunities for innovation, and greater accessibility and accountability of the courts.  New York can learn from California’s recent experience.

The Chief Judge’s proposal benefits all New Yorkers, but this reform would benefit low-income and unrepresented litigants most immediately and substantially. The convenience and importance of pursuing multiple claims in a single forum before a single judge, abiding by a uniform set of rules, while maintaining the same counsel (to the extent one is appointed) cannot be understated.  Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of reform is the Family Court, which does not have jurisdiction to hear divorce proceedings, thereby forcing many individuals of limited means to maintain parallel actions in the Supreme and Family Courts.  Compounding matters, while a litigant may be appointed counsel in Family Court for certain matters, that same litigant may go unrepresented in the Supreme Court.  There is no reasonable argument in favor of maintaining an antiquated system of justice – a system which unfortunately perpetuates hardship for those in greatest need.

The first hearing on court simplification will take place on November 13, 2019 at the Assembly Hearing Room, 250 Broadway, Room 1923, 19th Floor, New York, New York.  A second hearing will take place in Albany on November 21, 2019 at the Van Buren Hearing Room A, Legislative Office Building, 2nd Floor, Albany, New York.

The Fund for Modern Courts is spearheading the campaign for court simplification, with over 106 organizations having joined the coalition thus far.