NY court structure up for debate

A victim of domestic violence in Upstate New York fights for sole custody of her kids, a divorce from her abusive husband and his conviction. After becoming the sole breadwinner for her children and taking on a full-time job alongside her domestic duties, she has to appear in three courts: Family Court, State Supreme Court and Criminal Court.

Hers is one among thousands of experiences where the complex court system disadvantages the state’s most vulnerable people, the impetus for calls for state-wide judicial reform. Though it may seem like the separation of the state’s judicial system between 11 courts may provide specialization and ease of process, proponents of a more consolidated judiciary claim that the number courts causes confusion, chaos and exhaustion for those trying to navigate the system.

One supporter of consolidation is New Paltz-based attorney and former legislative chair of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Andy Kossover. “Our current court structure hasn’t been modified in over half a century. New Yorkers deserve a modern court system that should be easier to access and understand and which speeds rather than impedes the resolution of cases,” said Kossover. Appearing in different courts for different parts of the same case is time-consuming, resulting in some cases dragging on for years. In addition, different judges often only see parts of a person’s overall situation, and thus must obtain records from courts with different jurisdiction, further lengthening a case.

“With issues of custody, divorce and support, you get into issues that should be consolidated, and often they’re not,” said upstate New York-based attorney Michael Sussman. “I think those issues ought to be heard in the same preceding with the same judge who’s familiar with all the dynamics.” The New York State Court System is one of the largest in the country and the world, with over 1,350 judges and some 15,000 non-judicial employees. New York’s courts process an average of more than three million new cases each year. Its 11 courts dwarf states like California and New Jersey, which have three and five courts, respectively (Simplifynycourts.org). The current system of courts is as follows:

Outside New York City

District Courts: Located only in Nassau County and the five western towns of Suffolk County. Arraigns defendants accused of felonies but only handles misdemeanors, lesser offenses and civil suits involving
claims up to $15,000.

City Courts: Defendants in upstate cities accused of felonies appear here first. However, City Courts only handle misdemeanors, lesser offenses and civil suits involving claims up to $15,000.

Town and Village-Justice Courts: Handles misdemeanors and lesser offenses. All criminal cases (misdemeanors, felonies, etc.) begin here. If a charge rises to a felony, it is moved to a county court.

County courts: Located in each county outside New York City, they have exclusive authority to try felony cases, while also having authority to try misdemeanors and other minor offenses.

Courts in and outside New York City

The Supreme Court: Hears cases outside lower courts’ authority, such as civil matters involving more money; divorce, separation and annulment proceedings; and criminal prosecutions of felonies.

The Family Court: Hears cases involving children and families, adoption, guardianship, foster care approval and review, juvenile delinquency, child support, custody and visitation, and child abuse and neglect.

The Surrogate’s Court: Handles cases relating to individuals who have passed away: validity of wills and administration of estates. They also handle adoptions.

The Court of Claims: Has exclusive authority over lawsuits seeking money damages against the State and state-related entities/organizations.

Appellate Courts: Appellate Terms of the Supreme Court in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Departments: Hear appeals of decisions in cases starting in the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts; District, City or Town and Village Courts; County Courts; and City Courts and Town and Village Courts.

The Court of Appeals: New York’s highest court. Hears civil and criminal appeals from intermediate appellate courts and sometimes trial courts.

(The New York State Unified Court System, “The New York State Courts: An Introductory Guide,” 09.2010).

State legislators and governors have tried to restructure the system over the past 50 years with little success. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) acknowledged this in his 2020 State of the State Address, adding that he plans to work with the Court of Appeals, DiFore and other state judges to modernize the judiciary (YouTube, “Governor Cuomo Delivers 2020 State of the State Address,” 01.08.2020).

Top state jurists continue to demand change even today. Back in September 2019, New York State Chief Justice Janet DiFiore proposed a major transformation of the current system. The proposal consolidates the state’s 11 courts into three. The present County Court, Family Court, Court of Claims and Surrogate’s Court judges would all become State Supreme Court judges. Upstate City Court judges would turn into a new network of Municipal Court judges. Town and Village Courts would remain as is (Nycourts.gov, “Chief Judge Proposes Constitutional Reforms to Simplify Outdated Court Structure, Aiming to Enhance Access, Optimize Resources,” 09.25.2019).

Changing the court system according to DiFiore’s proposal requires amendments to the state constitution. For this to happen, the state Assembly and Senate have to approve the proposal in the 2020 and 2021 sessions. Voters must then vote in favor of the amendments during the November 2021 general election. The proposal is only in its draft stage and is currently being discussed in public hearings hosted by the state Legislature (“Chief Judge Proposes”).

So far, Supreme Court judges, whose jurisdiction would merge with that of other courts, have been some of the most vocal opponents to the proposed consolidation. The Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of New York State was not consulted about DiFiore’s proposals. At the New York Legislature’s second public hearing on the proposal in November 2019, some rejected the notion that their careers should be placed in the Office of Court Administration’s (OCA) hands.

“Granting OCA authority to shift judges from one position or jurisdiction to another endangers the freedom that judges must have to make unpopular decisions when the facts and existing law compel it,” said Justice Deborah Karalunas, president of the Association of Justices of the Supreme Court of New York State (Brooklyn Eagle, “Biggest opponents to court-merger plan continues to be Supreme Court justices,” 11.23.2019).

In often-cited cases involving domestic violence, child custody and divorce, where two or three courts are involved, Justice Karalunas expressed that the inconveniences are not a result of the number of courts, but of the OCA’s inefficiencies. “Unlike the commercial division where I sit, OCA has not developed uniform rules, protocols and procedures to make for faster, smarter, cheaper Family Court litigation,” said Justice Karalunas (“Biggest opponents”).

New York State’s Chief Administrative Judge Justice Lawrence Marks noted that though he recognizes the criticisms of the judges, he would appreciate it if they offered ideas.

“We wanted to put something out to focus discussion on a particular proposal, but we said from the start nothing is carved in stone,” he expressed. “Undoubtedly, there will be changes. I’d be shocked if this thing sailed through. We see this as the beginning of the process.

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