New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has proposed amendments to the State Constitution that would eliminate New York’s complex maze of 11 separate trial courts and replace it with a simplified three-level structure to make the courts easier to navigate, increase operational efficiency and reduce costs to litigants, among other potential benefits.
These proposed reforms to New York’s court system are consistent with prior recommendations made by the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA). For example, in July 2015, HRFM partner and then-NYSBA President David P. Miranda, created a Committee on the New York State Constitution (the “Committee”), which was led by current NYSBA President Hank Greenberg. That Committee made recommendations regarding potential constitutional amendments to the Judiciary Article of New York’s Constitution, which creates the framework for the Unified Court System.
Among the core components of Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal is the restructuring of the trial court system, including these “key elements”:
- Consolidation of New York’s 11 different trial courts into a simple three-level structure consisting of a Supreme Court, a Municipal Court, and Justice Courts serving New York’s towns and villages.
- Abolition of the Court of Claims, the County Courts (which operate outside New York City), the Family Courts and the Surrogate’s Courts, and merger of their judges and jurisdiction into the current Supreme Court. More than eliminating a confusing array of courts, this merged Supreme Court will lead to greater diversity on both the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division bench.
- Creation within the merged Supreme Court of six divisions: Family; Probate; Criminal; State Claims; Commercial; and General.
- Abolition of New York City’s Civil and Criminal Courts, Long Island’s District Courts, and the 61 City Courts outside New York City, along with merger of their judges and jurisdiction into a new Municipal Court in those jurisdictions.
- Designation of New York City’s Housing Court Judges as Municipal Court Judges, to be appointed by the Mayor to 10-year terms.
- Preservation of the current means of selection and terms of office for all judges of courts abolished and merged into Supreme Court and Municipal Court, respectively (merger-in-place).
- Elimination of the century-old constitutional cap (of one judge per 50,000 residents in a Judicial District) on the number of Supreme Court judgeships that can be established by the Legislature.
- Authorization of the Legislature to change the number of Appellate Division Departments once every 10 years to best meet New York’s appellate justice needs.
- Provision for a five-year phase-in period to allow for any statutory, regulatory, administrative or other changes that would be needed to accommodate the new organizational structure.
The New York State court system is among the largest in the world, with more than 1,350 State-paid judges and some 15,000 non-judicial court employees. These courts deal with an average of more than three million new cases filed each year. Additionally, there are more than 1,800 judges serving in New York’s locally funded Town and Village Justice Courts.
“We are long overdue to amend our State Constitution to create a streamlined trial court system, a structure organized in a manner that most effectively and efficiently addresses the modern-day justice needs of New Yorkers. I am heartened by the strong support for court consolidation from so many organizations and individuals across the State, including the State Bar Association, the New York City Partnership and scores of community groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to Sanctuary for Families to leading lawyers from government, the private bar and general counsel offices. I look forward, as we work with the Legislature and Governor, to the passage of these important constitutional reforms, which can then be presented to the voters on the 2021 ballot for their approval,” said Chief Judge DiFiore.
To take effect, the Chief Judge’s proposal must be passed by the Legislature during its 2020 session, passed again during its 2021 session, and then approved by the State’s voters at the November 2021 general election.