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In annual speech, DiFiore looks ahead to New York court future

March 3, 2021 Rachel Vick

New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore used her annual speech on Tuesday to outline recent technological strides made by the New York court system, highlight persistent inequities and to look ahead to potential major changes to come as the state emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the “State of the Our Judiciary” address DiFiore discussed a report on discrimination and institutional racism in the legal-justice system as well as a plan for improving digital access to remote functions of the courts.

She also discussed budget constraints and focused on specific policy goals, including a proposal to simplify the structure of the court system. The controversial plan would require a change to the state Constitution and reorganize court hierarchy for the first time since 1962.

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“Our current structure results in more court appearances, higher legal fees, more lost workdays [causing] unnecessary added stress and frustration for everyone including, and most especially, litigants of modest means who can least afford it,” DiFiore said.

The changes would improve judicial diversity and simplify structures so that litigants can navigate the system with ease, she added.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore discussed a report on bias in the court system that was created by a task force led by former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, seen here. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese

She praised staff, attorneys and stakeholders who adapted to COVID-19 provisions that ushered in a complete transformation of court operations, slowing proceedings and halting trials.

Judges and court staff, she said, continued to keep the courts moving and demonstrated “tremendous dedication and resilience… as we worked as fast as humanly possible to stand up a virtual court system that could ensure the broadest, safest access to justice.”

She also addressed a budget crunch that has so far resulted in the termination of dozens of older judges statewide. The budget issues have also prompted a hiring freeze.

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Additional budget cuts will “harm court operations, and reduce court services at the worst possible time when our staffing levels are already deeply depleted; our backlogs are growing; and a surge in court filings is coming,” she added.

Despite the challenges ahead, the courts are prepared to continue their work with the knowledge and skills picked up over the past year, DiFiore said.

“We know that we have many challenges to meet before we move forward into a new post-pandemic normal, and we know that it is not going to be easy. But we have shown that we know how to do this work. Moving forward, we have every reason to look to the future with confidence and optimism,” she said.

“The public health crisis struck with lightning speed, with every aspect of our personal and professional lives turned upside down. We suffered the loss of loved ones, friends and colleagues; the economy was savaged; and the virus forced our courts to transform how we operate and deliver our services.”


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