New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore issued a press release on September 25, 2019 announcing proposed amendments to the New York State Constitution that would streamline and simplify the State’s Unified Court System. The Chief Judge’s proposal calls for the elimination of “New York’s complex maze of 11 separate trial courts” and would “replace it with a simplified three-level structure to make the courts easier to navigate, increase operational efficiency and reduce costs to litigants, among other potential benefits.”[1] If successful, these structural changes would represent the first major Constitutional changes to court system organizations since reforms were passed over 40 years ago in 1977.[2] These changes are also likely to affect the Commercial Division parts because, if adopted, they have the potential of increasing the overall efficiency of the state court system and the way judges are appointed to the Appellate Division. These reforms, in turn, would likely help shape the development of commercial law in the State.

In a statement, Chief Judge DiFiore commented that “[w]e 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.”

Among the core components of Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal is the restructuring of the trial court system. The press release provides the following “key elements” of this aspect of the proposal:

  • Consolidating New York’s 11 different trial courts into a three-court system consisting of a Supreme Court, a Municipal Court, and Justice Courts serving New York’s towns and villages.
  • Merging the Court of Claims, County Courts, Family Courts, and Surrogate’s Courts into the current Supreme Court. The merged Supreme Court would contain six divisions: 1) Family; 2) Probate; 3) Criminal; 4) State Claims; 5) Commercial; and 6) General.
  • Abolishing New York City’s Civil and Criminal Courts, Long Island’s District Courts, and the 61 City Courts outside New York City by merging those courts into a new Municipal Court in those jurisdictions.
  • Designating New York City’s Housing Court Judges as Municipal Court Judges, to be appointed by the Mayor to ten-year terms.
  • Preserving the current method for selection and the terms of office for all judges of the courts, which would be abolished and merged into the Supreme Court and Municipal Court, respectively.
  • Eliminating the constitutional cap on the number of Supreme Court judgeships that can be established by the Legislature.

If passed, the proposal would result in a broader pool of applicants who would be eligible for appointment to the Appellate Divisions, New York’s intermediate appellate courts (appointments to which are now restricted to New York State Supreme Court Justices). It would also authorize the Legislature to change the number of Appellate Division Departments once every ten years to best meet the needs of New York’s appellate system.

The proposal would provide for a five-year phase-in period in order to allow for any statutory, regulatory, administrative or other changes which may be needed to accommodate this new organizational structure.

According to the Chief Judge’s press release, simplifying the organizational structure of New York’s courts would eliminate inefficiencies and inconsistencies in the current state court system.

These proposed reforms to New York’s court system are consistent with prior recommendations made by the New York State Bar Association. For example, in July 2015, the then-President of the New York State Bar Association, David P. Miranda, created a Committee on the New York State Constitution (the “Committee”), which was led by current State Bar President Henry M. Greenberg. That Committee, among other things, made recommendations regarding potential constitutional amendments to the Judiciary Article of New York’s Constitution, which creates the framework for the Unified Court System.[3]

On January 27, 2017, the Committee issued its Report and Recommendations with regard to the Judiciary Article (“Report”), and addressed the “opportunities to restructure and modernize the New York Courts.”[4] Like the Chief Judge’s press release, the State Bar Report lamented that “decades have gone by without any successful effort to restructure and modernize the Constitutional underpinnings of our State’s court system…resulting in an overly complex, unduly costly and unnecessarily inefficient court structure.”[5] The Report also noted that “[a] wide range of groups has long advocated for the consolidation or merger of these trial-level courts in order to reduce or eliminate the unnecessary costs, undue inefficiencies and even confusion that this complex structure engenders.”[6]

One of these groups that had made similar court consolidation proposals had been appointed by New York’s former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and was led by Carey Dunne, who later became City Bar President (known as the “Dunne Commission”). Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal is also consistent with prior proposals that are detailed in the Committee’s Report which advocate for the possible creation of a Fifth Department to better balance the caseloads allocated to the four existing Appellate Departments.[7]

The Chief Judge’s press release highlights support for Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal from over 100 legal, business, and community leaders and organizations across New York. For example, Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of Partnership for New York City, commented that “[t]he city’s business community has been increasingly frustrated with delays and structural inefficiency in the court system, which are issues that the reforms proposed by the Chief Judge address. We urge the adoption of these reforms as promptly as possible so that the long overdue streamlining of the courts can begin.” In addition, Karen Seymour, General Counsel of Goldman Sachs, stated that “Chief Judge DiFiore’s court reform proposal addresses the significant challenges that have plagued our State’s court system for years and are a major impediment to equal access to justice.”

In order to take effect, the Chief Judge’s proposal will need to be passed by the Legislature in two successive sessions — likely during its 2020 session, again during its 2021 or 2022 sessions, and ultimately approved by the voters at a general election.[8] It has been reported that the Judiciary Committees of the New York Legislature will hold hearings on these streamlining proposals this Fall.