MEMORANDUM IN SUPPORT COURT REFORM AND RESTRUCTURING February 2007
The Fund for Modern Courts supports simplifying our state's trial court system to make it more efficient, effective and accessible. The current court structure is too costly, confusing, and discourages and impedes litigants, both private citizens and business, from pursuing their rights. Consolidating the eleven courts of records into a more simplified system is long overdue. Court restructuring should create a rational, user friendly court system which the public can easily understand; allow resolution of family problems in one court; make the system cheaper and easier for the State to support and litigants to use; simplify probate by creating a Probate Division of Supreme Court; benefit the business community by providing an accessible and efficient court system that can handle a large volume of complex commercial disputes; relieve the backlog of cases that now exists in the Second Department; and, provide for greater diversity on the bench.
One of the most troubling examples of the disjointed New York State court system is found in the experience of domestic violence victims, who can have their cases brought before as many as four different judges in three different courts and often even more adjudicators. For example, a victim may have to try her Civil Order of Protection, visitation, and child support cases in different parts of the Family Court. If there is a criminal proceeding, this same victim must then go to Criminal Court. She may also have to the Supreme Court to obtain a divorce. In each instance, the victim must give the harrowing account of her situation to court personnel, as well as the judges. The victim must take time off from work, secure childcare and figure out how to navigate a complex and confusing system. Victims of domestic violence already grapple with the emotional and physical pain inflicted upon them by their abusers. The current system to which they are relegated exacerbates a highly emotional situation and forces a victim to repeatedly re-live a nightmare.
Although the integrated domestic violence part addresses some of these issues, not all counties have an integrated domestic violence part. Restructuring would provide our court system with even greater consideration of the legal needs of victims of domestic violence.
The current system also results in the bifurcation of cases when the state is a defendant and there are also private defendants. The State can only be sued in the Court of Claims, other defendants cannot be sued in Court of Claims.Restructuring would address this common and costly situation.
The Fund for Modern Courts supports merger in place as the least disruptive means of effectuating the important goal of restructuring. Merger in place provides that the future selection process for judges would be the same as it was before the recommended restructuring.Seats that are filled by election would continue to be filled by election, and seats that are filled by appointment would continue to be filled by appointment.Existing terms of office would remain the same.Merger in place would not change the manner in which we select out judges. The Fund for Modern Courts has always supported a commission based appointive system but until the legislature makes the changes required to create an appointive system, the Fund for Modern Courts supports merger in place.
Another benefit of restructuring is assuring that the limited resources for all of the courts would be shared equitably.
In addition to creating a more efficient system, court restructuring could solve the state's worst overcrowding problem by establishing a Fifth Judicial Department - Currently, the Second Department represents half of the State's population and has a large share of the state's caseloads. In fact, the Second Department has three times the number of caseloads as the Fourth Department, which covers more counties. A paucity of judges is available to address the Second Department's burgeoning caseloads, thereby slowing the disposition of cases. Carving out a new Fifth Department from the Second Department would enhance the administration of justice.
Court Restructuring would repair what has become a maze for litigants and streamline administrative practices for counties. Litigants who are now daunted by the system would be better served, as resources would be more equitably distributed. Difficulties litigants undergo in family-related cases would be eased, as the proposal promotes a more efficient and consistent process. The proposal would standardize how counties manage and deliver administrative services in the courts. Current practices vary by county. Improved management and delivery of administrative services would eliminate the factors that impede the movement of cases through the court system.
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According to the Office of Court Administration reorganization will also save money. It was estimated that taxpayers would save more than one hundred thirty million dollars. Other savings would be realized after the first five years, as more money would be saved in litigation and other social services costs. Moreover, additional savings would be generated when related cases are tried before a single judge in one courtroom as compared to the current process of trying related cases before numerous and different judges in different courts. Expeditiously processing cases through the system would also reduce disposition costs. Furthermore, Court restructuring would reduce problems such as jurisdictional disputes that can impede the swift movement of cases through the system, saving litigation costs.
Court restructuring would also enlarge the pool of judges eligible for advancement. More women and people of color could be named to the Appellate Division than under the present statutory processes. Diversity on the bench is important and restructuring is a means to accomplish it.
Greater efficiencies achieved through court restructuring would return the focus back to the administration of quality justice, where it belongs. Public confidence would be restored to a system that has long been viewed in the public eye as insurmountable, and the new, simplified structure would promote public understanding about how the court system operates. For the above reasons, we urge you to support this measure.
Victor A. Kovner
Chair, Committee for Modern Courts