(Carmen Natale/ALM)

ALBANY – The New York State Bar Association on Tuesday kicked off its campaign in favor of a constitutional convention, arguing that it’s an opportunity to streamline the state’s court system.

At a news conference in Albany, state bar association president Sharon Stern Gerstman said a constitutional convention is needed to fix the “confusing and inefficient” court system in New York, which has 11 different trial courts.

If a domestic violence victim is seeking an order of protection and a divorce, he or she would have to appear in three separate courts, said Gerstman, who is of counsel at Magavern Magavern Grimm in Buffalo.

Sharon Stern Gerstman

“It’s hard enough to take time off to go to one court, but to take time off and get child care and spend the money to go to three courts is really overly burdensome,” Gerstman said at the press conference. “It has been estimated that the confusion and inefficiency of our court structure cost litigants about half a billion dollars a year.”

Gerstman said that a constitutional convention could alleviate some of the caseload from the Appellate Court, Second Department, which has more cases than the three other departments combined. State bar president-elect Michael Miller, a former president of the New York County Lawyers Association and a solo practitioner, said that the convention would allow the voters to bolster the home rule article of the state constitution, which grants local government powers to govern their community.

While opponents of a constitutional convention have been on an advertising blitz, the state bar is “not so well-funded as the opponents,” Gerstman said. The state bar’s campaign is distributing palm cards and window signs, but the campaign will rely on the “sweat equity of our volunteer leaders,” Gerstman said.

While the state bar has a political committee, they have decided not to fundraise from its members for a constitutional convention. If the state bar solicits members, Gerstman said, it will be for civil legal services or the unmet legal needs of others.

While the state bar and city bar approved having a constitutional convention in June, support isn’t consistent. The Nassau County Bar Association is opposed to the convention because it “would involve significant cost, take several years, and may not result in meaningful changes,” said president Steven Leventhal.

Mike Long, the chairman of the state’s Conservative Party and member of New Yorkers Against Corruption, a coalition that includes labor unions, environmentalists, liberal and conservative groups, said in a statement that a constitutional convention would cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Proponents of a convention are finally revealing themselves as elite New York lawyers and lobbyists. This is just like letting a fox guard a henhouse. A shareholder of one of the largest lobbying organizations in the state is now openly campaigning for a constitutional convention—a process which allows legislators to receive an additional $79,000 per year salary, has no clearly defined time limits, could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and could eventually end up benefiting the elite clients Hank [Henry Greenberg]‘s firm [Greenberg Traurig] represents while hurting everyday New Yorkers. When a group of well-to-do New York City lawyers band together to support a cause, I feel pretty confident that New Yorkers should be in opposition,” Long said.

On Nov. 7, voters in New York will decide on the referendum question, “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution and amend the same?” The referendum is presented to voters once every 20 years under the state constitution. In 1997, voters rejected the ballot measure.

If the referendum is approved, New Yorkers would elect delegates in 2018 to the convention, which would meet in 2019. At the convention, delegates would get to propose amendments to the state constitution for voter ratification. Then in November 2019, the electorate would get a chance to vote on each proposed amendment.

Supporters for a constitutional convention have argued that it’s an opportunity to modernize the 52,500-word constitution, portions of which are “hyper technical, unreadable and obsolete,” said Henry “Hank” Greenberg of Greenberg Traurig, an Albany practitioner who heads the bar’s Committee on the New York State Constitution.

Opponents, which include labor unions including the New York State United Teachers, have argued that a constitutional convention could become victim to deep-pocketed interests, such as hedge fund managers who fund pro-charter school campaigns. Some environmental groups also have been opposed to a convention because the “Forever Wild” article, which designates several parts of the state to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.”