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.
• “…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.”
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.”
“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.
“Faltering Courts, Mired in Delays,” by William Glaberson, The New York Times, April 13, 2013.
“New Jersey Courts: Historical Overview,” State of New Jersey.
“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.