Chief Judge Janet Difiore
State of the Judiciary 2021
“Managing the largest, busiest and most complex court system in the country is a challenge in ordinary times, but managing this system, as currently configured, through a global pandemic has underscored for all of us the urgent, undeniable need to simplify and streamline our trial court structure – a structure that is outdated, inefficient and harmful to the interests of people of modest means and communities of color.
Secretary Johnson’s Equal Justice Report identified many areas of concern for us. Among the most damning was his finding that the conditions in our “under-resourced” and “over-burdened” high-volume housing, family, and criminal courts have a dehumanizing effect on the predominantly low-income and minority litigants who appear there, creating the terrible perception — and I fear, in many cases, the reality — that there is a second-class system of justice for people of color in this state.
Our constitutional proposal to simplify the structure of our complicated patchwork of 11 different trial courts will go a long way toward addressing the undeniable disparities in our present system, and put us on a par with our more enlightened sister states, by creating two streamlined statewide superior and municipal courts that will provide us with the flexibility to allocate our resources more efficiently in order to provide first-class services to every individual who enters our courts.
In the year 2021, with our dockets building and expected to explode in courts like the New York City Housing Court, it is simply unacceptable, and wholly disrespectful to the people we serve, to continue to offer bogus justifications to preserve a court model that has not been updated since 1962, and which prevents us from applying our resources quickly and flexibly in response to the demonstrated needs of our litigants. The present court structure has the appearance, if not the effect, of serving the interests of a very few over the interests of the many. It is far from the best that we can offer the people of this great state, and the time has come to update and modernize our system in order to do right by all New Yorkers.
Our proposed amendment to Article VI of the New York State Constitution has garnered the support of an unprecedented coalition of over 100 judicial associations, bar associations, legal services organizations and good government and business groups. It has received the support of Governor Cuomo and many members of the Legislature. And while the pandemic temporarily interrupted our progress toward achieving first legislative passage of our proposal in 2020, we remain absolutely committed to obtaining first and second legislative passage in time for the voters to approve it at the ballot in November 2023.
As Secretary Johnson aptly noted in his Equal Justice report, the problems in our high- volume courts are so extensive and systemic in nature that the Judiciary alone does not have the power to make the necessary changes. Rather, “[t]his is a matter for all three branches of New York State government,” requiring “greater legislative and executive support for the judicial branch, at both the state and local level.”
I have every confidence that the smart policy and lawmakers in this state are motivated and primed to put the interests of the people first. The right plan has been proposed. Let’s all work together to get this done.”