Domestic Violence Project Falls Short of Integrated Courts

New York Law Journal, June 5, 2002

by John Caher

The one-family/one-judge concept underlying integrated domestic violence courts represents a major step forward, but remains a back-door, Band-Aid approach to the elusive goal of a integrated court system.

That was the message Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman delivered Tuesday at a forum in Albany sponsored jointly by the Committee for Modern Courts and the New York State Bar Association. Judge Lippman acknowledged that the expanding pilot program is a constitutional end-run necessary because the Third Branch remains handcuffed by a judicial structure designed in and for an era long gone.

“The courts, of all people, should not stretch to make sure that all the legal niceties are in place, and we should not be doing something where we have to torturously get the resources in the places where they need to be,” Judge Lippman said. “We need the imprimatur of the state. We must have a constitutional amendment that makes a statement that this is the way we are going to do our business.”

At Tuesday’s forum, the three judges now presiding over Integrated Domestic Violence Courts — Daniel J. Angiolillo of Westchester County, Ruth Levine Sussman of the Bronx and George B. Ceresia Jr. of Rensselaer County — all spoke favorably of an initiative that seeks to enhance victim security, ensure offender accountability and increase the flow of information between the myriad of courts that may be involved in various aspects of a violent domestic dispute. But underlying their praise was the question of why Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye found it necessary to institute the pilot program in the first place.

The answer is that New York’s court system is constitutionally structured with at least nine different trial courts resulting in considerable overlap and inefficiencies. Chief Judge Kaye and Judge Lippman contend that in domestic violence matters the structure created about a century ago is not only cumbersome, but potentially dangerous since all too often a court handling a custody matter may be unaware that a related criminal matter is ongoing in another forum. Consequently, they created three Integrated Domestic Violence Courts, and plan to open three more in the Syracuse and Rochester areas and in Suffolk County.

Tuesday, Judge Lippman said the “solution” employed in domestic violence matters is stop-gap and underscores the need to completely revamp the court structure to create a truly “unified court system.” He and Chief Judge Kaye are lobbying strenuously for a constitutional amendment that would merge the trial courts into three tiers while establishing a matrimonial division to handle all aspects of a divorce. That plan has the strong support of Modern Courts, the State Bar, women’s rights groups and other organizations and individuals. It is pending in the Legislature, where similar proposals have been pending for several decades.

Different Tactic
Now, however, Chief Judge Kaye and Judge Lippman are employing a different political tactic in wrapping the proposal around sensitive domestic violence issues. That tactic has been successful to the extent that it brought to the fray various women’s rights activists who in the past were largely on the sidelines.

It remains to be seen, however, if it is enough to prod legislative action. Since a constitutional amendment requires passage by successive Legislatures before a public referendum, this year — the last year of the current Legislature — is crucial if court consolidation is going to occur in the near future.

Judge Lippman said Tuesday that he is more optimistic than ever, primarily because there is now an important and vocal constituency on the side of the Judiciary.

“We think we have the best chance we’ve ever had to get the constitutional amendment . . . because, to be quite frank, we have a constituency that cares about this issue and actually votes,” Judge Lippman said. “Politicians and legislators understand votes.”

Tuesday’s audience included all seven judges of the Court of Appeals, Third Department Presiding Justice Anthony V. Cardona of Albany and Fourth Department Justice Samuel L. Green of Buffalo. Also in the audience was Joan T. Byalin, counsel to Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Helene E. Weinstein, D-Brooklyn.

site by iKnow