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.