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Chief Judge Looks To Consolidate Trial Courts

New York’s chief judge wants to consolidate the state’s 11 separate trial courts.

The state court system has more than 1,350 judges and 15,000 non-judicial court employees. State courts deal with an average of more than three million new cases filed each year. Janet DiFiore, New York state chief judge, recently released a proposal that would give the state’s court system a drastically different look over a period of about 10 years, starting in 2022.

If enacted, the Court of Claims will be abolished effective Oct. 1, 2022, with its justices becoming state Supreme Court justices. Effective Jan. 1, 2025, county, Family and Surrogate’s courts would be abolished with those judges also becoming state Supreme Court justices. Starting Jan. 1, 2027, New York City civil and criminal courts, district courts on Long Island and the 61 upstate city courts, including Jamestown and Dunkirk, would be abolished. Those judges would be part of a new statewide municipal court. There is no change for town and village justice courts.

‘LONG OVERDUE’

DiFiore said, in unveiling the plan, that no other state has as many separate trial courts as New York state does.

Proceedings starting in a Family Court can end up being heard in state Supreme Court by a different judge depending on how the case proceeds and could mean in some cases that litigants can’t use their court-appointed lawyer from the Family Court case in state Supreme Court. The chief judge also noted situations in which car accident victims may have to file separate cases against the state in the Court of Claims and the driver of another vehicle in state Supreme Court.

“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. I am heartened by the strong support for court consolidation from so many organizations and individuals across the state — including the State Bar Association, the New York City Partnership and scores of community groups ranging from the League of Women Voters to Sanctuary for Families to leading lawyers from government, the private bar and general counsel offices. I look forward, as we work with the Legislature and Governor, to the passage of these important constitutional reforms, which can then be presented to the voters on the 2021 ballot for their approval,” DiFiore said.

DiFiore’s plan would consolidate the state’s 11 trial courts into a three-level structure consisting of a Supreme Court, a Municipal Court and Justice Courts for towns and villages. The Court of Claims, county courts, family courts and surrogate’s courts would merge their judges and jurisdictions into the current state Supreme Court, a move DiFiore said would make more sense and lead to more diversity amongst judges. The new state Supreme Court would have six divisions — Family; Probate; Criminal; State Claims; Commercial; and General.

The plan also merges city-level courts into a new Municipal Court, preserves the current means of selection and terms of office for all judges of courts abolished and merged into Supreme Court and Municipal Court while eliminating the constitutional cap of one judge per 50,000 residents in a judicial district on the number of Supreme Court judgeships that can be established by the state Legislature. The state Legislature would be able to change the number of Appellate Division departments once every 10 years to best meet the needs of appeals courts.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

Meeting DiFiore’s 2022 timeline to start transforming the state court system will require a lot of legislative action. Amendments to the state constitution have to be voted on by two consecutive state Legislatures before the proposal is put up for a public vote. DiFiore said she would like the state Legislature to begin the process in 2020 by approving the plan the first time so that it can be approved by a newly elected state Legislature in 2021. If legislators approve the proposal, it could be voted on by state residents during a statewide election in November 2021 to begin taking effect in 2022.

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