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Brooklyn Bar Association committee to consider chief judge’s court consolidation plan

October 7, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals Janet DiFiore announced a proposal last month to consolidate the state’s court system from an 11-tier system to a three-tier system and it has drawn mixed reactions in the Brooklyn legal community.

The plan has several key components. The first is that many of the courts — the local Supreme Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and Court of Claims — would all be merged into one and called simply the Supreme Court which would be split up in different divisions — family, probate, criminal, state claims, commercial and general.

The judges would all become Supreme Court justices and would undergo the same selection process, according to the proposal.

The plan would also give the state the right to increase the number of appellate divisions, which would potentially be a big relief in the Second Department, which encompasses Brooklyn, because it currently is comprised of approximately 55 percent of the state’s population while the other three departments cover just 45 percent.

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The reactions to this proposal are mixed. Many lower court judges and acting Supreme Court judges are thrilled as they will automatically be named Supreme Court justices by 2025 and 2022, respectively. However, many current Supreme Court judges are unhappy because they would potentially be competing for appellate division spots in a larger pool of applicants.

Many judges who sit in Supreme Court have told the Brooklyn Eagle that they also worry that they could potentially be transferred to courts typically outside of the Supreme Court, such as the Family Court.

The Kings County Supreme Court’s top judge, Administrative Judge Lawrence Knipel, told the Eagle that he was thrilled with the announcement. He said he hopes that it passes the legislature and goes up for a vote because it would give administrative judges a greater ability to use the court’s resources to their best advantage.

“At present, New York is laboring under a judicial structure which has remained essentially unchanged since at least 1936,” Knipel said. “Since 1936, our world has changed, but our judicial system has not. New York can do better than a maze of 11 separate trial courts. Most states have simplified to a system of a lower court and an upper trial court. It is long since time to join our sister states and adopt a streamlined structure designed for the expeditious delivery of justice.”

Most importantly, Knipel added, this would allow Brooklyn to add additional judges as state law currently caps the number at a percentage of the population.

Presiding Justice Alan Scheinkman of the Appellate Division, Second Department, also said that he likes the proposal and admitted that it could take some of the pressure off of his court if a fifth appellate division were created within the state. He said, though, that if a fifth division were created, it would mean that the state would have to establish a new courthouse and add more judges.

“Any new appellate division would have to go hand in hand with a new courthouse and more judges,” Justice Scheinkman said.

Many local attorneys were indifferent towards the merger because, they said, they don’t see it as affecting their practices too much. There were a few, however, especially solo practitioners, or people who work in small firms, who worry that it could put a strain on their practice if they shuffle the physical structure of the courthouses too much.

“On first blush, I do not like it at all,” said Dominic Famulari, past president of the Columbian Lawyers Association and Catholic Lawyers Guild. “In the endorsements and support quotes that I read, it didn’t look like they talked to too many solo practitioners. Instead, they spoke to people from white shoe firms, nonprofits etc. Those people don’t work in the same world that the solo practitioners and small firm rank-and-file lawyers do.”

Frank Carone, president of the Brooklyn Bar Association and executive partner at Abrams Fensterman, said that the bar association has put together a committee that will examine the proposal and make recommendations as needed. He said that he and the bar association would not condemn or support the proposal until that process is complete.

The special committee will be made up of committee chairs from the seven different committees that Carone thinks will be most affected. They are Hon. Frank Seddio; Michael Farkas; Aimee Richter; Pamela Walker; Hon. Mark Partnow, Supreme Court, Civil Term; Rebecca Rose Woodland and Jeffrey Miller.

“The new special committee will initially be made up of those (seven) chairs, but we may decide to expand it,” Carone said. “We intend to take a strong specific opinion once the committee has had a chance to analyze and advise the board and make recommendations for the position of the association.”

Some judges have been wary that consolidation of the courts could potentially hurt judicial independence in the state because judges can be elected or appointed in one area, Surrogate’s Court, for instance, but then easily relocated at the whim of government officials if they don’t like the job they’re doing.

“The OCA proposal does not really simplify the structure of the courts,” said Justice Wayne Saitta, chair of the board of Supreme Court Justices of Kings County. “It just relabels the Family Court, Surrogate Court and Court of Claims the Family, Probate and State Claims Divisions. It would imperil judicial independence as it would enable [the Office of Court Administration] to permanently transfer judges out of the courts they were elected to serve in.”

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