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Chief judge’s state constitutional amendments aim to modernize the judicial system

Resolution must pass state legislature and get thumbs-up from voters

September 25, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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New York State’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced a proposed amendment to the State Constitution on Wednesday that would implement sweeping changes to the court system — reducing it from 11 separate trial courts to a three-level system with Supreme, Municipal and Justice Courts.

For this proposal to be enacted, it would have to pass through both bodies of the state legislature and then would have to be put to the voters as a ballot referendum, likely in 2021.

“We 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,” DiFiore said in a statement.

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Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced a proposal to merge the New York State Court System from an 11-tiered system into a more simplified three-tiered system. The proposal is similar to one that former Chief Judge Judith Kaye once pushed for and will ultimately be decided by a voter referendum.
Eagle file photos by Rob Abruzzese

The proposal is similar to one made by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye, but insiders have told the Brooklyn Eagle that this version is more likely to pass with a Democratic state legislature.

The New York State Unified Court System consists of over 1,350 judges and more than 15,000 court employees that handle over 3 million cases each year. There are an additional 1,800 judges serving the state’s locally funded town and village Justice Courts.

This proposal, if passed, would merge the Court of Claims into the Supreme Court effective Oct. 1, 2022. The Supreme Court would acquire its jurisdiction and active Supreme Court justices serving at least six months would become Supreme Court justices.

The Supreme Court would also swallow up the County, Family and Surrogate’s Courts and their jurisdictions by Jan. 1, 2025. Their judges would automatically become Supreme Court justices.

The New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, along with the district courts on Long Island and the 61 upstate City Courts would be abolished and replaced with a new Municipal Court. The Municipal Court would be a separate court in New York City, Nassau County, Suffolk County and each of the 61 upstate cities. The judges of the abolished courts would automatically become Municipal Court judges.

Housing Court judges, who are currently statutory, quasi-judicial officers appointed by the chief administrator, would also become judges of the Municipal Court.

There are no proposed changes to the state’s local Justice Court system.

The Supreme Court system would be split up in different divisions — family, probate, criminal, state claims, commercial and general. Judges serving in these divisions would still be selected the same way they are now, whether they are elected or appointed.

The stated purpose of this plan is to streamline the court system and hopefully ease massive caseloads.

In her announcement, Chief Judge DiFiore used two examples to demonstrate why the current system is too cumbersome. For example, currently, a family in which the parents are divorcing would have to have two separate court battles — going through divorce proceedings in Supreme Court and also a separate child custody or support dispute in Family Court

In a second example, DiFiore pointed out that car accident victims on state highways must sue the state in Court of Claims where there is no right to a jury trial, and separately sue the driver of the other vehicle in Supreme Court, where there is a right to a jury trial.

“Having taken form in the middle of the last century, New York’s byzantine trial court structure is today ill-suited to meet the needs of a modern court system,” said Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks.

“Its multiplicity of courts, along with their jurisdictional and procedural diversity, pose major challenges to all those who look to our justice system to resolve their legal disputes, particularly New York’s unrepresented litigants,” Marks continued. “These proposed constitutional amendments will lead to critically needed changes in our State Constitution that will make New York’s courts more user-friendly and improve the quality of justice statewide.”

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