On February 15th, the Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts’ Pandemic Practices Working Group (PPWG) issued a report evaluating the court system’s response to the pandemic and calling for, among other recommendations, the expansion of remote proceedings, enhancement of the court’s technological capacity, and an increase in court staffing. Beginning last summer, I had the privilege along with other Proskauer attorneys of assisting the PPWG with its information-gathering efforts and with drafting the report.
The Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts established the Pandemic Practices Working Group (PPWG) to investigate, evaluate, and report on the successes of, and challenges faced by, the state court system during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. To that end, the PPWG held its first Public Hearing on Pandemic Practices on June 7th, 2022 in Albany, New York. This hearing served an agenda-setting purpose for the PPWG, highlighting the most pressing issues facing stakeholders within the state court system. Thirty-seven witnesses participated from across New York State to share their unique perspectives.
As a board member of Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), a non-profit organization that helps unrepresented litigants in New York City Family Court, I was proud to help organize a recent panel discussion addressing race and poverty in the New York State Family Court. Moderated by LIFT Executive Director Cathy Cramer, the panelists included the Honorable Edwina Mendelson, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge; former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson; and Proskauer Pro Bono Partner, Bill Silverman. Secretary Johnson is responsible for a recent report on institutional racism in the New York State Court System, where he characterized certain courts, including the Family Court, as providing a “second class system of justice for people of color in New York State.” Bill Silverman co-authored a recent report on behalf of the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts which addressed the impact of COVID-19 on the New York City Family Court and how the crisis laid bare longstanding inequities. Judge Mendelson is responsible for the Court’s justice initiatives.
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s call during her recent state of the judiciary address to “modernize” New York’s court system by reforming its complicated structure, has energized a growing grassroots effort across the state. Since her speech at the end of February, dozens of groups and organizations, including representatives from a wide variety of New York State business associations, good government groups, advocates against domestic violence, legal service providers and bar associations, have come together to form a coalition for court simplification. Legislators are also now focusing on the issue. State Senator Brad Hoylman, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, recently told The New York Law Journal, “I’m actually digging into the issue and figuring out a way to hold hearings and move these proposals forward.”
The current court structure — made up of 11 separate trial courts with varying jurisdictions — is complex and costly, and adversely affects all litigants, both private citizens and businesses. It especially impacts the poor and unrepresented, who are expected to navigate the limited jurisdiction of these different courts with their different procedures and rules, in order to pursue claims (or defend against them) simultaneously in more than one forum. For example, matrimonial matters may not be heard in Family Court but only in Supreme Court, thereby leaving families with no choice but to litigate related issues in both courts simultaneously. Should there be any criminal or housing issues involved as well, those would have to be resolved in two other courts. Similarly, claims seeking damages against the state can only be heard in the Court of Claims, which has no jurisdiction over any city, county, or town government, or over any individual defendant.