Former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Warren E. Burger once observed that “[c]oncepts of justice must have hands and feet or they remain sterile abstractions. The hands and feet we need are efficient means and methods to carry out justice in every case in the shortest possible time and at the lowest possible cost. This is the challenge to every lawyer and judge in America.” This challenge is particularly acute today, as we face a new economic reality in which we must make more efficient use of our limited resources, while at the same time adapting to a constantly evolving legal practice. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and I are confident that with the continued assistance of our dedicated judges and court staff, as well as the cooperation and support of the entire judicial community, we will meet this challenge and find innovative and efficient means and methods to carry out justice for the people of our state.
In fact, we have already begun to take action towards this end. As I announced a few weeks ago, First Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks has been working closely with the deputy chief administrative judges and the administrative judges to develop individualized plans for their districts to ensure that the New York courts continue to fulfill our core mission of fairly and swiftly adjudicating cases. I can think of no better opportunity than Law Day to provide a glimpse at some of our plans to improve case management and reduce case backlogs that are already beginning to take shape.
Expediting Criminal Cases
First, the criminal courts are focusing their efforts on resolving the oldest cases. In many counties, the administrative judges will be taking a front-line approach in this effort by presiding over “oldest cases” parts themselves, focusing on achieving guilty pleas where appropriate or otherwise immediately assigning those cases for trial. Recognizing the importance of collaboration with all key stakeholders in this effort, administrative judges across the state are working closely with the district attorneys’ offices to prioritize the disposition of those cases that have been around the longest. In a proactive measure to streamline and expedite case processing from arraignment to trial, certain counties are also considering instituting strict time tables for each stage of the criminal case, akin to the approach currently used in civil preliminary conference orders. In New York City, concern about the time between arrest and arraignment is being addressed by expanding weekend arraignment hours in the Criminal Court.
Perhaps our greatest challenge exists in Bronx County, where an earnest experiment with a merged court model has not proven effective in the long run. Recognizing that it is imperative to act now to address the substantial misdemeanor and felony backlogs that have developed, we have decided to split the Bronx Criminal Division into a separate Criminal Court for arraignments and misdemeanors and a Supreme Court devoted exclusively to felonies.
As we work to begin unraveling the merged court, we will be carefully evaluating the assignment of judicial resources and staff, and coordinating closely with the district attorney’s office and the defense bar. In this regard, I would particularly like to thank Bronx County District Attorney Robert Johnson for his support and assistance during this transition. While this complex process may take several months to complete, we are confident that it will better ensure the most effective and efficient handling of each type of case and prevent unacceptable delays in the administration of justice.
While the criminal courts tackle the older cases, the civil courts are directing their attention to the record number of foreclosure filings that account for a significant portion of its backlog. Since the adoption of the Due Diligence Affirmation requirement in 2010, requiring residential foreclosure plaintiffs to vouch for the accuracy of the records on which the foreclosure is based, many previously filed foreclosure cases have remained on court dockets “in limbo,” as lenders’ attorneys have yet to comply with the affirmation requirements. The civil courts will now be undertaking a determined effort to ascertain whether an affirmation will, in fact, be filed, by calendaring these older foreclosure cases and affording the lenders’ attorneys a final opportunity to file an affirmation and proceed with the case. When that does not happen, the case may be dismissed without prejudice for failure to prosecute. This will rid crowded dockets of older, essentially non-viable cases, thereby enabling the courts to better prepare for the future influx of new foreclosure cases.
Similarly, in a further effort to clear dockets and free-up calendars, civil courts throughout the state are planning to take a closer look at their current case inventories and inquire about the status of long inactive cases. This clean up of lingering, stale cases, coupled with a renewed focus on developing more precise case data entry methods, will go a long way to increase the efficiency with which the courts can process pending and incoming actions. Plans are also developing in some districts to place an increased emphasis on pretrial case conferencing and specialized parts to facilitate case settlement, while other districts are exploring greater use of videoconferencing and other technologies to reduce the need for prisoner production or to accommodate out-of-state witnesses. In certain upstate counties, judges will be traveling to sit in counties and districts where the need to move trial calendars is the greatest. The addition of a limited number of judicial hearing officers and the filling of some critical non-judicial positions will further help districts in need address mounting caseloads.
As we take steps to decrease case inventories and increase trial starts, we must also work to ensure the availability of a robust jury pool through continued juror outreach efforts. Monroe County’s outreach plan, which emphasizes engaging the leaders of minority communities and local education groups to stress the importance of jury service and the necessity for a diverse jury pool, is a step in the right direction and will assure that a “jury of your peers” is not just a cliché, but a reality.
These various efforts represent a mere sampling of the state-wide initiatives that are currently being developed and instituted by our talented administrative judges, who have responded immediately with innovative ideas and concrete plans. In the weeks and months ahead, Judge Marks and I will continue to assist wherever possible as we work together to reduce delays, speed case dispositions, and enhance our overall ability to fulfill our fundamental constitutional mission—delivering justice.
Often overlooked in our quest to deliver justice are the true vanguards of this mission—the judges and court staff, who together ensure that justice is carried out on a daily basis and at every level to consumers, homeowners, businesses and families alike. Their hard work and commitment are the essential “hands and feet” of justice, giving every person who enters our halls their day in court and making sure that each case that enters our system truly counts. As Alexander Hamilton stated, “[t]he first duty of society is justice,” and this is precisely why the work of the courts, and every member of our court family, is so critical. It is their tireless efforts to carry out justice for the people of our state that protects our rights and guarantees our freedom.
A. Gail Prudenti is Chief Administrative Judge of the New York State Unified Court System.