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Streamline New York's court system

The State Supreme Court building in Nassau County

The State Supreme Court building in Nassau County in Mineola on Feb. 23, 2017. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Although federal court rulings often make national headlines, it is our state courts that have the most profound effect on our lives, families, property and liberty.

New York courts hear more than  3 million cases a year. Issues involve trusts and estates, personal injury claims, marital disputes, custody cases, commercial disputes and almost all criminal cases. Yet most New Yorkers know nothing about our court system. Thankfully, Janet DiFiore, New York’s chief judge, has proposed to overhaul the state’s judicial system.

Before outlining the proposal, let’s examine New York State’s judicial system, which, because of its complex nature, costs  New Yorkers far more per capita than residents of other states pay for their systems.

Let’s start with the state Supreme Court, which is not the state’s highest court as the name might suggest, but it is the highest court of original jurisdiction (in other states it is called the superior court). Initial appeals from our Supreme Court are heard by the appellate divisions of the state Supreme Court, not to be confused with the appellate terms of the Supreme Court or the state Court of Appeals, which is the state’s highest court. There are 11 levels of trial courts and myriad other courts of varying jurisdiction in our state, with some, but not all, of those judges being elected. If you live in Nassau or Suffolk, you elect District Court and County Court judges.

However, in New York City, you have Criminal Court and Civil Court judges instead. By now, you have the picture.

Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal would substitute that writhing monster of a court system with an understandable statewide three-level system. The newly proposed Supreme Court would combine the judges of what is now County Court, Family Court, Court of Claims and Surrogate’s Court into a consolidated court that would have jurisdiction over the matters covered by the separate courts. The midlevel Appellate Division would remain, drawing judges as it does now from among Supreme Court justices. The Court of Appeals would remain New York’s court of last resort. A new Municipal Court would replace Long Island’s district courts and New York City’s Civil and Criminal courts. Town and village courts would remain as they are now.

Under the plan, the Municipal Court still would handle lower-level civil cases and crimes, while the state Supreme Court would handle cases involving greater amounts, complex litigation, domestic matters and higher-level criminal charges. No change is proposed with respect to how judges are chosen or elected.

In 1985, when I became chief judge, I proposed similar court consolidation legislation supported by bar associations, good-government groups, Family Court advocates and business groups. We garnered a first passage by the State Legislature, but that’s where the proposal died. In 1986, political leaders, for their own reasons, mounted what was to be a successful opposition to any change. It might be that the confusing, duplicative and overlapping judicial processes benefitted the major and splinter political parties, but they hobbled the state’s administration of justice. In addition to the burden imposed on the taxpayer, our Byzantine court structure made it impossible for the public to seek reform and modernization of a system they did not understand.

Through enactment of DiFiore’s proposal, the executive and legislative branches of government would enable the judicial branch to vastly improve its ability to deliver justice in a manner consistent with the core values, demands and needs of all New Yorkers.  

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.