by Edwina G. Richardson-Mendelson, Ronald Richter and Juanita Bing Newton
in the New York Daily News
The pandemic has accelerated and emphasized deep flaws in New York State’s justice system. Most glaringly, it has thrown a spotlight on how the state’s antiquated and complex trial court system puts our most vulnerable citizens at a terrible disadvantage in their pursuit of fair, speedy and equal access to justice.
New York has a Revolutionary War-era network of trial courts — no less than 11. No state has nearly as many. It is the most archaic, complex and bureaucratic justice system in the nation, a wasteful and balkanized setup that creates radically different experiences for litigants depending on their racial, economic and geographic backgrounds, and costs everyone time and money.
It must be fixed, and now is the time. The national drive toward criminal justice reform creates the ideal atmosphere for our effort to reform New York’s courts, both criminal and civil.
Reforming our court system should be grounded on four core principles:
- promoting equal access to justice for all people;
- increasing efficiency and reducing costs for low-income New Yorkers;
- accelerating the ongoing diversification of our judiciary and leaders of our court system, and
- opening greater opportunities for judges to move up the ranks.
As it stands now, certain segments of our court system — such as the commercial division of the state Supreme Court, the highest trial court — run so efficiently and professionally that they are respected national models.
But other courts, such as Family Court, are plagued by a lack of sufficient numbers of both judges and non-judicial personnel, with lawsuits delayed for months and sometimes for years, resulting in trauma to children and families. This inequality of justice is worse now, with the commercial division humming along relatively smoothly during the pandemic, while delays in Family Court have worsened.
A similar scenario threatens to play out in Housing Court, where the expected soon-to-expire eviction ban promises to unleash a flood of cases.
For generations, reforming and streamlining New York’s courts has been a priority for those who fight for equal access to justice. Again and again, the dream has run aground on the shoals of lethargy, bureaucracy and resistance from powerful factions determined to protect the status quo.
The lack of action enshrines a two-tiered system where relatively affluent litigants can move through the system much faster than New Yorkers who are facing a family crisis or domestic abuse. And it is rife with absurdities.
Imagine a woman seeking a divorce after her husband has been arrested for beating her; he now refuses to pay child support and demands custody of their children. To resolve this dispute, she will need to go to three different courts — Criminal, Supreme and Family. Many not familiar with our system are stunned to learn, for example, that despite a year of litigation over child custody in Family Court, the woman would have to bring a separate divorce case before a different judge in the Supreme Court.
Or imagine the driver who is rear-ended by a drunk driver on a state road that was improperly marked. He or she will need to not only deal with Criminal Court, but with the Court of Claims — which exists solely for the purpose of settling suits involving the state — as well as the Supreme Court, which resolves damage suits between private citizens.
This can be fixed, but it won’t be easy, and it will take time and steely determination. Once we push forward, money will be saved — and the imbalances among those who are properly served will eventually lessen.
To begin with, we must replace our 11 trial courts with a Supreme Court and a Municipal Court. All the existing courts, other than the upstate town and village courts, would become divisions of these two larger entities, with the Family Court becoming a division of the Supreme Court, allowing for smooth coordination and streamlined processes for all members of society. California and New Jersey, among other states, have successfully instituted such reforms.
The streamlining will have a critical secondary benefit. New York State’s judiciary has become more diverse in recent years, at least downstate. Expanding the Supreme Court will create more opportunities for jurists to move up the judicial ranks and greatly increase the opportunity for advancing statewide diversity.
For this to happen, both houses of the Legislature will have to approve an amendment to the state Constitution during the 2022 and 2023 sessions, to be followed by a public referendum approving the amendment by voters. This can and must be a central focus in Albany’s drive for overall justice reform.
Richardson-Mendelson is deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives in the NYS Unified Court System, Richter is a former New York City Family Court judge and former commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, and Bing Newton is a former dean of the Judicial Institute.