Last week, court reform took a giant step forward in New York State when Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Brad Hoylman and Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Charles D. Lavine introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to simplify New York’s complicated court structure.

The proposal would streamline the court system by consolidating New York’s 11 separate trial courts into three tiers: Supreme Court, Municipal Court, and Justice Courts (which would remain unchanged).  The proposed amendment would also remove the existing constitutional cap on Supreme Court judgeships and, as a result, the court system would be able to allocate resources where they are most needed, as opposed to where they are constitutionally (and arbitrarily) apportioned.  This would reduce backlogs in high-volume courts, such as the Family Court, and also result in an enlarged and more diverse pool of judges for the Appellate Division (which would continue to draw from the Supreme Court).

Of significance, 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.  The Family Court, for example, 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.  Under the proposed amendment, the Family Court would become part of the Supreme Court so there would no longer be the need for wasteful parallel proceedings.

Although this much-needed reform has been sought for decades, there are two main reasons to believe that this effort now has a real chance of success.  First, there is increasing awareness of the need to advance racial and social equity in our court system, a need underscored by two recent reports: former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s report examining institutional racism in the court system, and a report by the New York City Bar Association and The Fund for Modern Courts examining how COVID-19 laid bare inequities in the New York City Family Court. As the Chair of Modern Courts, I had the privilege of working on that report, and I spoke with dozens of practitioners, advocates and litigants all of whom recognized the critical need for court reform to ensure equal access to justice.

Second, there is strong support from Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, legislative leaders, and a coalition of over 100 organizations. Although change, especially constitutional change, is never easy, there is a growing sense that it is now time for court reform. As Senator Hoylman told The New York Times, “My colleagues in both houses think that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restructure the courts.”

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Photo of William C. Silverman William C. Silverman

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer…

William C. Silverman is a partner responsible for leading Proskauer’s global pro bono efforts, which provide assistance to individual clients and nonprofit organizations in litigation as well as transactional matters. He focuses on identifying and securing pro bono opportunities and partnerships for Proskauer lawyers and ensuring widespread participation in these projects.

Bill has robust private and public sector experience and a strong criminal and civil background. He has worked extensively on government investigations and white collar criminal matters, as well as complex civil litigation in federal and state courts. He also served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, where he led criminal investigations, conducted trials and handled Second Circuit appeals.

Throughout his career, Bill has dedicated himself to the promotion of equal access to justice through pro bono service, particularly in the area of family court, anti-trafficking, and immigration.

Bill spearheaded a partnership among several law firms, corporations and the New York City Family Court to provide free legal advice to pro se litigants. The New York City Family Court Volunteer Attorney Program now has more than 400 volunteer attorneys from 40 major firms and corporations. Bill also helped build a coalition of organizations in a successful effort to secure additional Family Court judges in New York. He is now part of an effort spearheaded by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to simplify the New York Court System from 11 trial courts to three.

Bill serves as counsel to the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition. In that capacity he has been a strong advocate for changes in the law and public policy to protect victims of human trafficking and bring perpetrators to justice. He also represents individual clients in this area, including a successful federal lawsuit brought on behalf of a trafficking victim against her traffickers. For his work, he was named by domestic violence nonprofit Sanctuary For Families as one of “New York’s New Abolitionists.”

Bill has spoken at numerous conferences and events, including New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearings on Civil Legal Services and the American Bar Association’s Equal Justice Conference. In 2014, he attended a meeting at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and other policymakers on the need for access to legal services in immigration proceedings.

Bill has been recognized for his public service with the Abely Pro Bono Leadership Award from Sanctuary For Families and Columbia Law School (2019); the Special Leadership Award for All-Around Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility & the Law from City & State Reports (2015); the Commitment to Justice Award for Outstanding Partner from inMotion (2008); and the Matthew G. Leonard Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Achievement from MFY Legal Services (2007).

Outside of his work at the firm, Bill serves on various committees and non-profit boards. Bill is currently chairman of the Fund for Modern Courts, a non-partisan citizen organization devoted to improving New York State courts, and is formerly chairman of Legal Information For Families Today (LIFT), an organization devoted to unrepresented litigants in Family Court.