N.Y. Chief Judge Proposes a Simplified Court System

On February 16, 2022, N.Y. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore proposed simplifying the New York State trial court system. The proposal suggests consolidating the Court of Claims, County Court, Family Court, and Surrogate’s Court into a single statewide Supreme Court. This consolidation would take place over a three-year period beginning on January 1, 2025. Additionally, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, Nassau and Suffolk district Courts, and 61 City Courts that are upstate from N.Y.C. and Long Island would be merged into a single statewide Municipal Court as of January 1, 2030. The proposal would not impact Town and Village Justice Courts. The proposal would provide the Legislature with the power to adjust the number of Appellate Division Departments, which would change the current four department model for the first time since 1894. This change would be beneficial to the Second Department, which currently oversees about half of the population of the State of New York, and about two-thirds of the appellate caseload in New York. In addition to the structural change, the proposal would eliminate the current cap on the number of Supreme Court Justices and allow the Legislature to determine the sufficient number of Justices to support the caseload.

New York currently has a complicated court structure. The trial court level is a labyrinth of courts that could see someone in the Family Court, County Court, and others all on related claims. The complicated structure has been the focus of reform for several years. Back in July 2006, then Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye appointed a Special Commission to assess the need for reform to the structure and operation of the New York courts. The Commission released its findings in a 175-page report.  The Commission suggested a similar plan to the one just released by Judge DiFiore. The plan in 2007 would have consolidated the major trial courts into a two-tier system with a single Supreme Court and a statewide system of District Courts. The Supreme Court would have six distinct divisions (family, commercial, state claims, criminal, probate, and general) but would not be jurisdictionally separate. The District Courts would have jurisdiction over misdemeanors, housing, and civil claims of $50,000 or less. The proposal also would have created a Fifth Department of the Appellate Division. Like the current proposal, the Commission suggested removing the constitutional limit on the number of Supreme Court judgeships that the Legislature could create. The commission also proposed changes to the Village and Town Justice Courts.

Even before this year, Chief Judge DiFiore proposed to streamline the court system in 2019. Then, the suggestion was to abolish the Court of Claims, County, Family, and Surrogate’s Courts and convert their respective judges to Supreme Court Justices and have the Supreme Court assume the jurisdiction of those courts. Additionally, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, Long Island District Courts, and 61 upstate City Court Courts would be abolished, and their judges assigned to a new statewide Municipal Court. The Municipal Court would sit as a separate court in New York City, Nassau County, Suffolk County, and each update City Court. The Legislature would have been given the power to adjust the number of Departments of the Appellate Division once every ten years.

Achieving Chief Judge DiFiore’s plan will require time. Since it would be amending Article VI of the New York Constitution, the Legislature would need to pass a bill two years in a row. If a simplification bill were to pass in 2022 and 2023, the provision could be on the ballot as a referendum in November 2023. The court simplification bills are in the process of being introduced in the Assembly and the Senate by Charles Lavine and Brad Hoylman who chair the Judiciary Committee in each body respectively.

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