This informal structure was designed for a broad, rural citizenry, but by the 1840’s, the state was changing, developing significant urban areas. The 1846 Convention increased the number of Supreme Court judges from 3 to 32, and the court was given statewide status. The existing lesser courts were also given constitutional status, and the beginnings of a two-tiered Appellate system was established. So rather than a restructuring of a decentralized court system that was a holdover from colonial times, the 1846 Convention expanded and legitimated it.
In the 1894 Convention, a few changes were made to this system, including the dividing the appellate courts of the state into four geographic judicial departments of roughly equal population.
Such a decentralized system with multiple courts was not prepared to handle the larger populations, increasing urbanization, and exploding reliance on the courts to settle economic disputes. So the Constitution was amended in 1962 with a new Article VI in an attempt to overhaul court administration and funding. Article IV also limited the number of Supreme Court justices to 1 per every 90,000 residents. The structure of the court has not changed since that time:
As mentioned previously in the Problem section, this morass of separate courts means that the same case may play out in separate courts with separate judges at the same time. In fact, this is a common occurrence in New York State.
Although the number of Supreme Court justices can grow along with the population, there has been an explosion of commercial and civil litigation in New York City that is unrelated to population size. For decades now, New York City has been woefully and permanently short of Supreme Court justices. So justices from other courts are temporarily assigned to the Supreme Court – for years. These “Acting Supreme Court Justices” now make up half the Supreme Court justices serving in New York City.
Supreme Court justices are supposed to be elected, but many of these temporary justices were appointed, so the purpose of electing Supreme Court justices is now frequently negated.
Even worse, dividing the state into four geographic departments in 1894 has created additional problems for the appellate courts:
With the growth of New York City, the Second Department now represents half the population. The result has been to reduce the number of judges presiding in each case and to greatly increase the time it takes for cases to be resolved.
Article VI also included a feature for the Appellate division, where the Governor can designate Justices to serve on the Appellate Court. Currently, two-thirds of Appellate Justices in the Second Department were assigned this way. The result, according to “A Court System for the Future,” is that “…these additional justices serve for indefinite, effectively permanent terms, while the justices who occupy the constitutionally provided seats on the court serve for five-year terms and must seek re-designation after their terms conclude.”
In 2007, the Special Commission on the Future of New York State Courts was created to examine the court system, recommend reforms, and do an economic valuation of the costs of the existing system. They determined that New York has “an inefficient and wasteful system that causes harm and heartache to all manner of litigants, and costs businesses, municipalities and taxpayers in excess of half a billion dollars per year.” Since that time, nothing has changed except inflation – a more accurate number is now over $600 million per year.