Hank Greenberg: Simplifying The NY Court System

Nov 27, 2019

For decades, leaders of the judiciary, bar associations and good government groups have highlighted the need to modernize New York’s court system.

Sadly, both for those who work in the system and the people it serves, the calls of court reformers have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Our state has some of the finest trial judges. But they work in a structure that is the most archaic and bizarrely convoluted in the nation.

New York has 11 separate trial courts — the most of any state — each with its own costly filing system and administrative staff.

This is not only unduly expensive for taxpayers, but it complicates the management of cases — for judges, lawyers and litigants alike.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore is the latest to put forth a plan for improving the system. She hopes to eliminate the complex maze of courts and replace it with a simplified three-level structure. Her plan will:

  • Enable faster and more efficient resolution of cases and fewer court appearances;
  • Allow court administrators to make the best use of limited resources;
  • And, diversify the courts, especially outside of New York City.

With respect to diversity, the upstate judges who sit on our intermediate appellate courts (the Appellate Division) and our trial level court of general jurisdiction (the Supreme Court) are overwhelmingly white and male.

This is so despite the fact that our largest upstate cities — Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany — are diverse communities in every way.

As we approach the year 2020, that is not acceptable.

Former Chief Judge Judith Kaye observed that a diverse bench gives the public a belief that they are included in the justice system. A non-diverse bench sends the opposite message.

New York’s demographics are changing. If our judiciary doesn’t change apace, we will lose the public’s confidence in the justice system and respect for the Rule of Law.

By consolidating multiple trial courts, the plan Chief Judge DiFiore proposes would significantly increase the diversity of the Supreme Court bench outside New York City.

Assume her plan went into effect today. The number of female Supreme Court justices will jump by 21 percent, and ethnic diversity on the bench would increase by 25 percent.

In Albany County alone, under the proposed plan and following the last election, come January 1 we would have had ten new diverse Supreme Court Justices — eight women, one of whom is African American, an African American man and a Hispanic man.

The public that uses our courts will reap the greatest benefit from the Chief Judge’s plan, because their cases will be resolved faster and require fewer court appearances.

That translates into a host of savings — on everything from child-care to time off from work to travel costs — all of which arise when one must be in court.

It is hard to put an exact dollar amount on these savings.

But it’s clear the current court system takes a significant toll on everyday New Yorkers.

Consider, for example, a domestic abuse survivor who decides to leave her relationship.

Today, she might find herself in three different courts to secure justice: Family Court for custody and protection of her children; Supreme Court to initiate divorce proceedings; and Criminal Court if she wants her abuser to be prosecuted on charges. Clearly, the burdens placed on real people by our current system are intolerable. Countless confusing hearings and proceedings are not only expensive, they also cause anxiety, pain, and despair for vulnerable persons. This is no way for a humane, modern justice system to operate. We are New Yorkers.

We believe in compassion for all and caring for those who need our assistance.

The Empire State can no longer tolerate a structure of trial courts unworthy of its citizenry.

Making these changes requires amending the state’s constitution, which takes time.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it provides us an ample opportunity to discuss how reform will benefit all New Yorkers.

That way, when it comes time for voters to weigh in on the necessary constitutional changes, they will be well informed, and the state will hopefully finally get the judiciary system it both needs and deserves.

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.