Merger of Trial Courts
New York State has eleven different trial courts: the Supreme Court, which has justices sitting in all 62 counties; the Court of Claims, which sits statewide; Surrogate’s Courts in each county; County Courts in each county outside New York City; Family Courts in New York City and in each of the 57 counties outside the New York City; a New York City Civil Court; a New York City Criminal Court; a separate City Court for each of the cities outside New York City; District Courts for parts of Long Island; and Town and Village Justice Courts in most towns and villages. In some less populated counties one judge may serve in multiple courts.
Note: Town and Village Courts and direct appeals are not shown in this chart; in the Third and Fourth Departments, criminal appeals from the City Court proceed to the County Court and can be further appealed to the Court of Appeals.
Modern Courts believes that the current court structure is too complex, confusing, costly, and impedes litigants, both private citizens and business, from fully pursuing their rights. Consolidating the eleven courts of record – more trial courts than virtually any other state – into a more simplified system will provide greater efficiencies and improve the administration of justice. In addition, consolidation would enhance public confidence in the court system and promote better public understanding about how the court system operates.
Modern Courts supports the merger of trial courts by the creation of a two-tiered structure, comprised of a statewide Supreme Court of general jurisdiction and a statewide District Court with more limited jurisdiction.
The Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts, created by Judith S. Kaye, former Chief Judge of the State of New York, like Modern Courts, recommended merger and endorsed a two-tiered structure, comprised of a statewide Supreme Court of general jurisdiction and a statewide District Court with more limited jurisdiction, preferably including a small-claims part.
Download Kaye Commission Report: A Court System for the Future: The Promise of Court Restructuring in New York State
Note: Town and Village Courts and direct appeals excluded from chart; in the Third and Fourth Departments, criminal appeals from the City Court proceed to the County Court and can be further appealed to the Court of Appeals.
While the primary goal of courts merger or simplification is to make our courts more understandable to the public and improve access to justice, the budgetary and economic savings to the court system and to those who use it are real and substantial. According to a 2007 fiscal analysis by the Office of Court Administration (OCA), court simplification would result in budgetary court savings of at least $59 million annually through the unified treatment of related cases and approximately $6 million annually by improving the courts’ administrative framework. An additional $56 million annually in economic savings would be achieved through efficiencies from improved case management, and procedural codes reform.
The Special Commission on the Future of the New York Courts concluded that court simplification would save the public and private sector $443 million annually in terms of productivity, lost wages, attorneys’ fees and related costs – money that is currently wasted on account of people having to make redundant court appearances, file unnecessary papers and briefs, and suffer through delays caused by courthouse backlogs and inefficiencies.
Merger also would mean that all judges of the merged statewide Supreme Court would be eligible for designation to the mid-level appellate court (the Appellate Division) as opposed to the current Constitutional requirement that limits designation to elected Supreme Court justices.
If merger of the courts were to be adopted by the convention, but no changes are made about how judges are selected, Modern Courts believes that the concept of “merger in place,” which would continue the current selection process for justices and judges, should be adopted. For example, justices of the current Supreme Court and their successors would continue to be elected, and judges in the Criminal Court and Family Court in New York City would continue to be appointed, while Family Court judges outside New York City would continue to be elected.
It should be noted that simplification or merger of the courts has long had the support, not only of Modern Courts but of the 50 members of the Coalition for Court Simplification. The members of this coalition included representatives from a wide variety of New York State business associations, good government groups, advocates against domestic violence, legal service providers, and bar associations.
Appellate Division adding a Fifth Department
Modern Courts believes the Constitution should be amended to permit the Legislature to establish a Fifth Department, of the mid-level appeals court, the Appellate Division. This is necessary because there are currently overwhelming and imbalanced case loads among the existing four Departments. For example, in 2014 the Second Department heard almost 65% of all Appellate Division cases in the State, while the First Department heard 18%; the Third Department 9.4%; and the Fourth Department 7.6%.
|Counties by Appellate Division Department|
Appellate Division and the Number of Justices
The current Constitution limits the number of justices in each Appellate Division, Judicial Department, as follows: 7 in the First Department, 7 in the Second Department, 5 in the Third Department, and 5 in the Fourth Department. The Constitution also provides a means for the Governor and the Office of Court Administration to increase the number of appellate division justices based on the need. As a result, the number of justices has been increased to 21 in the First Department, 22 in the Second Department, and 12 in both the Third and Fourth Departments.
Modern Courts believes that the Constitution should be amended to reflect the actual number of Appellate Division justices currently in place (2017), while preserving the current Constitutional system for adding additional justices as needed.