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.”