Resources: The Constitutional Limit on the Number of Justices in the Supreme Court

New York State’s Supreme Court is the statewide trial court of unlimited original jurisdiction that hears cases outside the authority of the lower courts, such as civil matters beyond the monetary limits of the lower courts’ jurisdiction, divorce, separation and annulment proceedings, and criminal prosecutions of felonies.

The Constitution provides for the total number of justices of the Supreme Court in each judicial district, including justices designated to the Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court. Once every ten years, the Legislature may increase the number of Supreme Court justices in any judicial district, “except that the number in any district shall not be increased to exceed one justice for fifty thousand, or fraction over thirty thousand, of the population thereof as shown by the last federal census or state enumeration.” Article VI, §6.d.

This population-based formula limiting the number of Supreme Court justices significantly undermines the court system’s ability to deal with New York’s large and complex case load.

The elimination of this constitutional cap could provide needed judicial resources and better serve the public who rely on these courts to resolve significant civil and criminal issues.

One example of the inequity of a population-based formula for determining the number of Supreme Court justices can be found in New York County (the 1st Judicial District), where in 2015 the population exceeded 1.6 million, and as a result of this formula an insufficient number of Supreme Court judicial positions were created to handle the significant volume of cases. The court system has dealt with this imbalance by designating judges who serve in other courts to be “Acting” Supreme Court justices. This is a stop-gap measure that negatively impacts the number of judges available to hear cases in other courts.  This problem is further exacerbated because, according to the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on State Courts of Superior Jurisdiction, the population-based formula, does not take into account that New York County has over 2 million non-residents who work there daily, over 315,000 business associations, over 50 million visitors annually, thousands of out-of-state and foreign agencies and firms that do business in Manhattan, and the number of foreign, federal, state and local government agencies located in New York County. All this adds immeasurably to the number and complexity of cases that are filed annually in the courts of New York County, which is a world center for finance, other business, tourism, and immigration.

This issue is not limited to New York County. The application of the population-based constitutional cap on Supreme Court justices in New York City as a whole provides a maximum of 171 justices which is not enough to serve the needs of New York City. Of the 154 justices currently authorized to sit in New York City Supreme Court only 136 actually serve in Supreme Court trial parts because some of justices are assigned to the Appellate Division or the Appellate Term. This is far too few justices to handle the more than 100,000 cases filed in New York City. The court system, according to information provided from the Office of Court Administration, has been forced to create an ad hoc fix that “borrows” 35 judges from the New York City Civil Court and 69 judges from New York City Criminal Court, as well as 63 judges from the Court of Claims and even 3 Family Court judges, and make them Acting Supreme Court justices. As a result, the ability of the Civil Court and the Criminal Court to handle their own judicial business has been diminished, which has a significant impact on access to justice for New Yorkers.

A more modern and progressive approach to providing appropriate judicial resources has been advocated by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The NCSC analyzes the number, value and complexity of cases to determine an analytically sound allocation of judicial resources. This methodology has been engaged by many state court administrators to study and develop a system of analyzing the actual work-load of the courts with the goal of apportioning state judicial resources in a less arbitrary way than the antiquated system established in New York State Constitution.

site by iKnow