Constitutional Reform of New York’s Court System Progressing – Government, Public Sector


United States: Constitutional Reform of New York’s Court System Advances

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Last week, judicial reform took a giant leap forward in New York State when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Hoylman and Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles D. Lavine introduced a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at simplifying New York’s complicated court structure.

The proposal would streamline the court system by consolidating New York’s 11 separate trial courts into three tiers: the Supreme Court, the City Court, and the Courts of Justice (which would remain unchanged). The proposed amendment would also remove the existing constitutional cap on Supreme Court justice positions and therefore the judiciary would be able to allocate resources to where they are most needed, as opposed to where they are constitutionally (and arbitrarily) distributed. This would reduce backlogs in high-volume courts, such as Family Court, and also result in a larger and more diverse pool of judges for the Appellate Division (which would continue to draw from the Supreme Court).

It is important to note that this reform would most immediately and substantially benefit low-income and unrepresented litigants. The convenience and importance of prosecuting multiple claims in a single forum before a single judge, adhering to a uniform set of rules, while retaining the same attorney (insofar as one is appointed) cannot be underestimated. The Family Court, for example, has no jurisdiction to hear divorce proceedings, forcing many people of limited means to maintain parallel actions in Supreme Courts and Family Courts. Under the proposed amendment, the family court would become part of the Supreme Court, so there would be no need for unnecessary parallel proceedings.

Although this much-needed reform has been sought for decades, there are two main reasons to believe that this effort now has a real chance of success. First, there is a growing awareness of the need to advance racial and social equity in our justice system, a need underscored by two recent reports: former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson’s report examining the institutional racism in the justice system and a report by the New York City Bar Association and the Fund for Modern Courts examines how COVID-19 has laid bare inequalities in New York City family court. As President of Modern Courts, I have had the privilege of working on this report and have spoken with dozens of practitioners, lawyers and litigants who have all recognized the critical need for court reform to ensuring equal access to justice.

Second, there is strong support from Chief Justice Janet DiFiore, legislative leaders and a coalition of more than 100 organizations. Although change, especially constitutional change, is never easy, there is a growing sense that now is the time to reform the courts. As Senator Hoylman said
the new York Times“My colleagues in both chambers believe this is a unique opportunity to restructure the courts.”

Constitutional Reform of New York’s Court System Advances

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