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NY's top judge calls for a massive court restructuring

New York’s top judge on Wednesday called for a comprehensive restructuring of the state’s court system, the latest attempt to simplify a labyrinth that features 11 different trial court venues.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore proposed what she calls a “simplified, three-level structure to make the courts easier to navigate, increase operational efficiency and reduce costs to litigants.” She said New York has the nation’s most cumbersome trial court structure.

“We are long overdue to amend our State Constitution to create a streamlined trial court system, a structure organized in a manner that most effectively and efficiently addresses the modern-day justice needs of New Yorkers,” DiFiore said in a statement.

She isn’t the first high-ranking state official or even top judge to call for court restructuring.

Judith Kaye, New York’s chief judge from 1993-2008, made multiple, almost annual attempts to persuade legislators and governors to consolidate the state’s “maze” of supreme, family, surrogate, housing and county courts, as well as the court of claims, which hears lawsuits against the state, into a more orderly two- or three-tiered system.

Such a system would prevent, for example, families going through divorce and custody proceedings in separate family and supreme courts. Or consolidate claims stemming from a highway accident from having to be pursued in both the court of claims and Supreme Court.

Then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer pushed lawmakers with a similar plan in 2007. To no avail.

DiFiore’s proposal largely aligns with those of Kaye and Spitzer. Among other things, she proposes to consolidate a lower-level Supreme Court with six divisions to hear cases: family, probate, state claims, criminal, commercial and general.

Further, she would abolish Long Island district courts, New York City civil and criminal courts, and 61 upstate city courts and merge them into a new “municipal court” venue. She said the change would allow administrators to more easily assign judges and resources where needed.

She also would allow the Legislature to weigh the possibility of adding more midlevel Appellate Division courts — currently there are just four hearing appeals throughout the state — every 10 years.

DiFiore’s proposals would require changing the state constitution. To do so, the state Legislature would have to approve them twice and then voters would have to approve them in a statewide referendum.

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