The Fund For Modern Courts and Proskauer hosted representatives from a diverse coalition of organizations in New York State and leaders of the state bar at our New York office on May 3 to discuss the necessity of court reform in New York.
The keynote speaker, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, laid out three primary areas of concern. First, he explained that the court’s structure itself, which consists of 11 overlapping trial courts with different levels of jurisdiction, is “confusing, cumbersome, and complicated.” He stressed that adopting a simplified structure not only would relieve administrative costs but would also better serve the public. To help illustrate his point, he added that Article VI of the New York Constitution (the highly detailed provision concerning the judiciary) contains 16,000 words as compared to the judiciary article in the U.S. Constitution which contains 375 words.
Helaine Barnett, Chair of the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, expanded on this point, detailing how important a reorganization would be in the context of Family Court, which, for example, does not have the jurisdiction to order a divorce. By not providing a single judge with the authority to order all necessary relief, the system increases the cost of litigation, burdens litigants with additional court appearances, and increases the chance for inconsistent decisions. In short, the harder it is for people, especially those of limited means, to navigate the court system, the greater the chance that they will not have full access to justice.
The second area of concern outlined by Judge Marks is the need for an additional appellate department. The four existing departments were created in the late nineteenth century when the population was divided equally among them – that is no longer the case. Today, the Second Department serves roughly half of the state’s population, and as a result is not adequately positioned to deal with the volume of cases.
Third, Judge Marks addressed the State Constitution’s strict formula for the distribution of Supreme Court Justices throughout the state. That formula, which caps the number of Supreme Court Justices in judicial districts based on population, does not take into account caseload, leaving deficiencies in districts with a large volume of proceedings. The court system has dealt with this problem through the appointment of acting Supreme Court justices, which draws judges from civil and criminal courts, thereby further burdening those lower courts. Providing additional Supreme Court Justices where they are needed is a critical reform.
Given the competing demands on the legislature and governor, Judge Marks emphasized the need to develop a political strategy to put court reform, which will require a constitutional amendment, on the “front burner.” During the event’s Q&A, attendees emphasized the need to build as large a coalition as possible, including especially non-legal groups.