With its 11 separate trial courts and byzantine design, New York state’s court structure is an outdated can-of-worms that’s bad for families in crisis, bad for litigants, bad for business and bad for the state. Our chief judge, Janet DiFiore, wants to streamline the court system, and as the administrative judge for the 7th Judicial District, I can confirm that reform can’t come soon enough.
New York’s court system is uniquely cumbersome. We have a Supreme Court, a Court of Claims, 57 county courts, 58 family courts, 62 surrogate’s courts, two New York City lower courts, two district courts on Long Island and 61 city courts outside New York City. All those layers upon layers accomplish nothing, except to further traumatize suffering people.
Imagine you are going through a divorce with child support, custody, domestic abuse and guardianship issues on the table. That’s quite a burden for anyone to carry, and the current court structure only increases your burden and, quite probably, your legal expenses.
You’ll likely end up in Family Court to resolve the support and custody issues. But the Family Court judge can’t grant your divorce, so you will have to go to the Supreme Court for that. You may end up in County Court for the abuse issue. For any guardianship issues you’ll probably need to go to Surrogate’s Court as well. Multiple appearances before multiple judges in multiple courts can result in conflicting decisions on similar issues in the same case and cause delays that are not only costly and frustrating, but potentially dangerous when they involve domestic violence or placement of children in crisis.
Or imagine you are in an automobile accident on a state highway, where you’re injured by a reckless driver at an unsafe intersection.
To sue the driver for damages, you’ll go to Supreme Court. But if you also want to sue the state for creating that dangerous intersection, you’ll need to go to a second court, the Court of Claims, which only hears cases against the state. The Supreme Court justice cannot hear your claim against the state and the Court of Claims judge cannot hear your claim against the driver. And while there is a Supreme Court in every county, only one county in our district — Monroe — has a Court of Claims presence. So if you happen to live in Canandaigua, you can argue your Supreme Court case right in town. But you’ll have to travel to Rochester for the Court of Claims action. That one crash will bring you to two courts in two different courthouses with two different judges who will preside over two different trials.
New York has more trial courts than any state in the nation, and Chief Judge DiFiore wants to bring this state in line with the rest of the country. She is proposing a common sense, streamlined court structure.
Under her proposal, several courts (County Court, the Court of Claims, Family Court and Surrogate’s Court) would merge into the Supreme Court, where one judge, rather than four, could handle all the cases now dispersed throughout multiple courts. Further, 65 lower courts would be abolished and combined into a single Municipal Court that would hear minor criminal matters, housing cases, small claims and other small civil disputes.
The chief judge’s plan is simple and straightforward. Implementing it is not.
Similar proposals in the past have invariably run into the opposition of long-entrenched, politically powerful forces with a parochial stake in the status quo. And because the proposal requires an amendment to the State Constitution, it must be passed by the state Legislature not once, but twice, before going to a public referendum.
No matter the obstacles, an effort to reform our court structure must be started in the Legislature when it reconvenes in January. And this effort must be successful if New York is to have a court system that is well-designed to meet all the needs of a 21st-century public.
Craig Doran is a New York State Supreme Court justice and the administrative judge for the 7th District. In that capacity, he is responsible for overseeing court operations in the trial courts in Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne and Yates counties.