Nearly 15 years ago, New York State Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, then the state’s chief administrative judge, said, “Restructuring the state courts is the key to modern and effective justice in the 21st century. Not only would the enactment of this proposal make the courts more comprehensible for New Yorkers, it would also promote fairness, improve services and save taxpayers a substantial amount of money…. Court restructuring is an idea that makes sense both operationally and financially and promises to improve the quality of justice statewide.”
The proposal? Consolidating the nine—yes, nine—trial level courts that comprise the most confusing and, in some respects, outdated, judicial system in our nation into a two-tier trial court structure. Merge the Court of Claims and the Family, County and Surrogate’s Courts into the Supreme Court, making a single court of general, state-wide jurisdiction, and create a state-wide system of district courts with limited geographical jurisdiction to replace the New York City Criminal and Civil courts, the City courts upstate, and the District courts on Long Island. Town and village justice courts would be unaffected.
How much money can be saved? According to the 2008 report by the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts, “the inefficiencies created by the system’s convoluted web of trial courts cause pain and hardship for the most vulnerable citizens and cost litigants and the state over $500 million every year.” That is half a billion dollars in 2008. Imagine what it must be now.
This idea for improving the New York State judicial system is not new or unique. It has been analyzed, studied and on the table for years. It is ready to go. Credit former Chief Judge Judith Kaye and current Chief Judge Lippman for their pursuit of its adoption since 1997. Former governors, legislative leaders from both the Assembly and Senate, and dozens of business, non-profit and good- government organizations have expressed support.
So why has it not been implemented and why is no one talking about it now, at a time when our state government faces daunting long-term fiscal problems, and the hundreds of municipalities and school districts statewide have been forced to reinvent themselves due to those same economic realities and the 2 percent tax cap?
“The current structure of the New York Court system cannot be defended. It is inefficient, costly to litigants and generally not conducive to the swift and sure administration of justice. It fails to take full advantage of the capabilities of the judiciary and makes needless and costly demands on attorneys’ and their clients’ time.” So said the Atlantic Legal Foundation in a 2005 report.
The recent assignment of upstate Supreme Court justices to the Bronx to help alleviate the backlog of criminal cases is but one recent example of the difficulties court administrators face in allocating judicial resources under the present system. Within New York City and its coextensive five counties, Supreme Court justices preside over criminal cases. Outside the city and throughout upstate, criminal cases are presided over by County Court judges and state Supreme Court justices primarily preside over civil cases. County Court judges could not be temporarily assigned to the Bronx because the State Constitution prohibits such an assignment outside of the judicial department where they reside.
New York citizens cannot be faulted for rejecting the recent proposition to raise the retirement age of Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges, who represent less than one-third of the total number of state judges. New Yorkers recognized that there has to be a better idea for long term efficiencies and cost control in the state’s judicial branch.
One of the arguments made in favor of raising the retirement age for Supreme Court justices was that “[t]he added judicial resources would enable administrators to redeploy state supreme court and acting state supreme court justices to courts with a particular need for more judicial resources to handle heavy caseloads.” (NY City Bar Association, October 2013).
Imagine what three times more judicial resources could do to handle the heavy caseloads in the many family and criminal courts where backlogs have delayed and sometimes denied justice to parents, their children, and those facing criminal prosecution? If all trial-level judges were Supreme Court justices, reassignment could easily be accomplished without having judges from the far corners of the state travel and put their own caseloads on hold.
There are other reasons why court consolidation and merger make sense. According to a recently retired Appellate Division justice, the Appellate Divisions are “flooded” with family law cases. Yet Family Court judges, who have the most experience with these cases, are precluded from serving on the Appellate Divisions since they are not Supreme Court justices. So too are County Court judges even though criminal appeals make up as large, if not a larger, proportion of cases appealed to the Appellate Divisions than do Family Court cases.
Another reason is that there are not enough state Supreme Court justices. For years, many Court of Claims, County, Family and Surrogate’s court judges have been designated as acting state Supreme Court justices to make up the huge deficit and give court administrators some flexibility in allocating judicial resources where they are most needed. Administrators would also have the ability to consolidate administrative offices and staff.
The proposal is not perfect. It still requires the election of Supreme Court justices from throughout the judicial districts in which they reside. Other than administrative reasons, there is no justifiable basis to continue this mandate. Because of an individual assignment system, Supreme Court justices preside almost exclusively over cases in their home counties, venturing outside to other counties in the district only when a particular county has no resident justice or the justice is disqualified. Some of the 13 judicial districts statewide are geographically larger than most state Assembly and Senate districts, the Fourth Judicial District being larger than the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined.
Judicial ethics forbid candidates for judicial office from engaging in partisan political activity and soliciting campaign contributions. State judicial candidates must rely upon independent committees to raise money, but judicial ethics discourage potential donors by imposing strict contribution limits which, if exceeded, prohibit a judge from being assigned to their cases. Lawyers are reluctant to contribute to a judge’s campaign fund if they cannot appear before that judge in the future. As a result, candidates for sSupreme Court must underwrite their campaigns with their own savings and those residing in less populous counties are at a distinct fund-raising and electability disadvantage.
Increasingly, smaller counties do not have a resident state Supreme Court justice and more populous counties have more justices than their home counties’ caseloads call for. Electing Supreme Court justices from within their own county, and providing for the number of justices to be determined by population, will insure prompt access to a judge in a courthouse and the hearing of cases, as well as promote fairness.
State court restructuring in New York is not just an idea whose time has come. It is long past due.
Richard B. Meyer is an acting Supreme Court justice in Essex County. He is an elected judge of the County, Family and Surrogate’s Courts and presides over an Integrated Domestic Violence Court, a Drug Treatment Court, and a Veteran’s Treatment Court.