Court Restructuring for New York State

Why does New York waste $600 million per year on the most “archaic and bizarrely convoluted court structure in the country”?


Other states have modernized their court systems in recent years, but New York is decades behind, not having made changes to the Judiciary Article in our constitution since 1962.

New York has eleven separate trial courts (the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court Family Court, Surrogate’s Court, the Court of Claims, etc.)  This means individuals, families and businesses often have to litigate the same case simultaneously in multiple courts with overlapping jurisdiction.  For instance:

• For families facing divorce, custody issues and accusations of domestic violence, they would have to litigate separate cases in the Supreme Court, Family Court and a criminal court, telling their same stories over and over to completely different judges.

• When a state and non-state actor are parties in a personal injury, malpractice or commercial dispute, the case must be litigated in both the Supreme Court and the Court of Claims.

• In the case of an orphaned child, proceedings must occur in both the Surrogate’s and the Family Courts.

In addition, the appellate courts were divided into 4 Districts with a constitutionally limited number of justices.  These Districts had roughly equal populations in the 1890s, when the system was devised.  However, things have changed.  Now the Second District represents about half the state’s population and handles half of the state’s caseload, leaving it woefully short of resources.

All this redundancy and inefficiency clogs our court system, delays justice, is a nightmare to administer, and costs the state over $500 million per year in waste in 2007 dollars, as determined in a study from that year.  Given the inflation rate over the last ten years, the total would now be $600 million.

We need a new constitutional amendment restructuring the court system.  All these separate courts must be consolidated into a single court system, as California has, or a two-tiered court system as proposed by the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts, which was appointed by Chief Judge Judith Kaye. In addition, a new Fifth Appellate Department should be created. A more rational, efficient system can save the state hundreds of millions while providing more effective and timely justice.
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• “There is simply no reason why the people and businesses of New York State should have to suffer any longer with the most backward and inefficient court structure in the nation.” – Special Commission on the Future of New York State Courts, 2007.

• “…our extraordinarily complex and stratified, trial court structure severely handicaps the state’s ability to deliver on the state constitution’s crucial commitment to assuring that “[n]o person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” – Daniel Feldman and Marc Bloustein, “New York’s Broken Constitution.”

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Article VI, Section 1
Unified Court System; Organization; Process

a. There shall be a unified court system for the state. The state-wide courts shall consist of the court of appeals, the supreme court including the appellate divisions thereof, the court of claims, the county court, the surrogate’s court and the family court, as hereinafter provided. The legislature shall establish in and for the city of New York, as part of the unified court system for the state, a single, city-wide court of civil jurisdiction and a single, city-wide court of criminal jurisdiction, as hereinafter provided, and may upon the request of the mayor and the local legislative body of the city of New York, merge the two courts into one city-wide court of both civil and criminal jurisdiction. The unified court system for the state shall also include the district, town, city and village courts outside the city of New York, as hereinafter provided. Read More

The existing court system in New York is a “vestige of a nineteenth century patchwork in which a variety of idiosyncratic courts were allowed to proliferate despite overlapping and inconsistent jurisdictions.”

The court system in New York was little changed from colonial times until the Constitutional Convention of 1846.  The Supreme Court served no fixed term in office.  There were a small number of judges who rode the court circuit, visiting different locations every few months. “In effect, each judge was himself an institution with substantial, if not really unlimited, authority to determine the rules of legal practice before his court. Also, each judge generally had the final word in controversies before him as there was little in the way of an appellate court structure.”

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New Jersey
Prior to 1947, New Jersey had seventeen different courts. A profound restructuring of the court occurred in 1947, resulting in this still current structure:

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The Budgetary Impact of Trial Court Restructuring,” New York State Unified Court System, February 2002.

Court Reform in New York State,” by Jonathan Lippman, The Public Policy Forum, May 17, 2005.

Court Restructuring, Economic Development, and the State of New York Courts,” by Dan Gross, Government Reform, February 15, 2012.

A Court System for the Future: A Report by the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts,”  February, 2007.

Faltering Courts, Mired in Delays,” by William Glaberson, The New York Times,  April 13, 2013.


New Jersey Courts: Historical Overview,” State of New Jersey.

New York’s Broken Constitution,” Peter J. Galie, Christopher Bopst, Gerald Benjamin (Editors), SUNY Press, 2016.

A Short History of the New York State Court System,” By Marc Bloustein, The State University of New York, September, 1987.

Analysis of Trial Court Unification in California, Final Report,” by Mary Anne Lahey, Ph.D., Bruce A. Christenson, Ph.D. Robert J. Rossi, Ph.D., September 28, 2000.