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Brooklyn administrative judge says court consolidation will reduce delays and enhance justice

January 22, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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One of Brooklyn’s top administrative judges wrote a letter on Wednesday in support of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s plan to consolidate the court system in New York State.

Justice Lawrence Knipel, administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term, referred to the current 11-tiered court system as “obsolete” and added that the proposed three-tiered system would reduce delays and “enhance justice.

“The proposed consolidation of New York’s trial courts affords a unique opportunity to reform the obsolete organization of our courts,” Justice Knipel wrote in his open letter. “Alone among the 50 states, New York has eleven different trial courts. Many only have two.”

There have been at least five attempts by past chief judges to consolidate the courts over the last 50 years, including an attempt by then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye about 15 years ago.

The plan, as proposed by Chief Judge DiFiore, would eliminate the 11-court system and replace it with three courts: The Supreme Court, a Municipal Court and the current Justice Court system that serves upstate towns and villages. That idea is that by eliminating the barriers between the courts, it would be easier to shift resources and streamline and speed up the way the system works.

The Court of Claims, the county courts outside of New York City, the Family Court and the Surrogate’s Court would all be merged into the current Supreme Court.

The Civil, Criminal and Housing courts in New York City plus the district courts in Long Island, and the 61 city courts outside of New York City would become the Municipal Court.

None of the ways that judges are elected or selected would change. However, the cap of one judge per 50,000 residents in a judicial district would be eliminated and the state legislature would be permitted to change the number of Appellate Division departments once every 10 years. This all would be phased in over five years.

Justice Knipel gave three main reasons for voicing his support for the plan proposed by the chief judge — it would resolve jurisdictional conflicts between the courts, it would streamline administrative needs of the courts, and it would lead to more accurate budgeting.

“Many families suffer because of competing divorce litigation in Supreme Court and family related litigation in Family Court,” Justice Knipel wrote. “Add to this mix the domestic violence jurisdiction of the criminal courts and you have a potentially toxic mix of conflicting jurisdiction. While measures have been adopted which somewhat ameliorate these conflicts, the true fix is consolidation of these litigations before a single judge.”

Justice Knipel also explained that there are similar inefficiencies between the Supreme Court and Surrogate’s Court. He pointed out that when party involved in ongoing litigation in Supreme Court dies, it can disrupt trials while parties seek a personal representative in the Surrogate’s Court.

In one scenario, Justice Knipel explained that families have lost houses to foreclosure in front of one judge in the Supreme Court while fighting over the estate that’s involved in front of another judge in the Surrogate’s Court.

“It has happened that the family home is lost in foreclosure because Surrogate’s Court has yet to determine rightful ownership,” he wrote. “With consolidation, both issues will be decided together before a single judge.”

From an administrative perspective, Justice Knipel points out that properly allocating resources, particularly in crisis situations, can be extremely difficult and that the consolidation would allow judges and staff to be moved from court to court without bureaucratic hurdles including “transfer orders.”

The whole proposal is expected to cost approximately $13.1 million, primarily to cover raises for judges and their staff who would be moved into the Supreme Court, according to Hon. Lawrence Marks, the chief administrative judge of the state. However, Justice Knipel points out that the inefficiencies in the court cause budgetary bloating and that the consolidation would lead to more accurate budgeting.

“It is long since time that New York joins with the rest of the states and consolidates our unwieldy court structure,” Justice Knipel wrote. “History demands it.”

As of now, three main groups have refused to support or have come out against the consolidation plan. Those include some of the current Supreme Court justices, who feel that the plan threatens judicial independence because it would give the governor the ability to appoint judges to the Appellate Division and Court of Appeals more easily; Surrogate’s Court judges, who fear that they will be elected in one court and diverted to another court; and affinity bar associations who fear that this plan will either hurt diversity in the courts or do nothing to improve it in places where improvement is needed.

In order for the consolidation plan to take effect, the state legislature would have to vote to approve it twice, once in 2020 and again in 2021; it would then be placed on the ballot as a referendum in 2022.

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