Stakeholders Tackle Overhaul of New York Courts

MANHATTAN (CN) – Lawmakers, judges, lawyers and litigants agree: New York state has one of the largest court systems in the world but one of the most complex and cumbersome trial procedures in the country.

On Wednesday, legislators and stakeholders gathered in a windowless hearing room of the state Assembly’s offices in Lower Manhattan to discuss how New York might ditch the labyrinth.

“I can tell you now, this system is extremely difficult to understand, and we are attorneys,” Atoosa Movahedi, director of legal services at The Urban Justice Center Domestic Violence Project, said at the hearing. 

At a Wednesday, Nov. 13 hearing, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks passed out this graphic showing what the New York state court system looks like right now.

The group came together to consider a proposal put forward in September by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore with New York’s highest appellate body, the Court of Appeals.

Across the country, the term “supreme court” usually designates the highest court of appeal. Not so in New York where there is a branch of the supreme court in all 62 counties for trial-level proceedings.

DiFiore calls for the state’s major trial courts to be consolidated within the New York Supreme Court, while creating a new statewide municipal court to house “trial courts of lesser jurisdiction (not including the Justice Courts).”

Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks told members of the state Senate and Assembly this organization would give Supreme Court judges full authority to handle all the cases in their court.

He noted that the proposal specifically does not address whether the judges would be elected by a public vote or appointed by politicians, a controversial issue. 

“The words ‘court system’ are probably a misnomer, for it is difficult to recognize any system in the conglomeration of courts throughout the state,” state Senator Brad Hoylman said Wednesday, quoting from a 1955 report on New York court reform, which he said was an apt description of today’s court system as well.

Marks was one of nearly 20 witnesses who testified during the nearly five-hour hearing Wednesday.

“We need to sort of untie our hands from behind our backs and be able to easily and quickly move the resources to where they’re the most needed,” said Marks.

Other witnesses at the hearing noted concerns about the potential effects of the proposal on judicial diversity in the state. 

Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti said the plan would give the governor and the chief judge total control over the judiciary. New York City residents don’t want a judge from a wealthy suburb randomly assigned to handle Manhattan housing court cases, he added. 

The proposal would also eliminate the constitutional cap of one supreme court judge per 50,000 residents. Marks put the cost of this at $13.1 million per year but emphasized that the plan would ultimately save New York litigants in reduced attorney fees, fewer missed days of work and lower child care costs. Marks said his office aims to flesh out cost issues before another hearing on the court overhaul set for next week.

Though Marks said the group didn’t place a dollar value on the millions of hours that the proposal will save litigants, he called it certain there was value there. 

Affinity bar associations are vehemently opposed to the merger, noted state Senator Luis Sepulveda, saying the plan puts diversity in the court system at the “mercy” of the governor, who would choose an appellate judiciary from a pool of judges. Marks tried to ease his concerns.

“An essential need is judges of color to pick from,” said Marks. “Our proposal would provide more judges of color.” 

Speaking on behalf of the Dominican Bar Association, Judge Bianka Perez opposed the plan. 

“This proposal is a threat to our democracy,” she said, expressing fear it would “exponentially” decrease the number of diverse judges and adversely affect historically underrepresented communities and minority groups.

Judge Debra James of the Supreme Court Justices Association of the City of New York suggested the new proposal could violate the Voting Rights Act by transferring judges elected in a certain county to sit in a different part of the state and thus gutting the concept of one person, one vote.

William Dobbins, president of the Suffolk County Court Employees Association, said the fix isn’t about the judges — it’s about everyday court staff. New York courts don’t have enough basic needs like court clerks, officers and interpreters, he said.

“How do we serve the public, how do we do what the public needs us to do, without having the people who actually do the work?” he asked.

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