by Rolando T. Acosta, Randall T. Eng and Carolyn Walker-Diallo
in the Times Union
New York State has rightfully earned its place as one of the progressive capitals of the nation. New Yorkers have been at the forefront of some of the greatest movements for change over the course of our history — from workers’ rights to women’s suffrage, from civil rights to criminal justice reform.
But for decades, if not longer, that has not been true of needed reform of the court system. Right now, we are engaged in a struggle to transform our justice system to reverse generations of inequality and injustice. New York is today far behind many states in enacting long overdue reforms that we can and must pursue to ensure equal access to justice for all New Yorkers.
The current state of our court system perpetuates radically different experiences for litigants depending on their racial, economic, and geographic backgrounds, and costs everyone—the rich and the poor—time and money.
While our judiciary, and those who lead it, are deeply committed to serving our communities and delivering equal justice to all, the structure of our courts has created a two-tiered system—one for the more affluent New Yorkers and companies and the other for New Yorkers who cannot afford lawyers and who don’t have the time and resources to spend years mired in an inefficient multi-court system.
The current byzantine structure of the court system denies those who lack the resources to overcome all the bureaucratic barriers that prevent the expeditious access to justice that our constitution guarantees.
For example, a young mother who is the victim of domestic abuse may have to travel among three courts, appear before three judges, with different lawyers (assuming she can afford them) to bring criminal accountability to her battering partner, receive court ordered child support payments and gain custody of her children. Or consider the private car driver who has an accident with both a state-owned vehicle and a privately owned limousine and who therefore must, to recover damages, have two separate trials, one in the Court of Claims and the other in the Supreme or civil court. Whether it means enduring delays in New York City courts or traversing suburban and upstate counties, where courthouses are miles apart and artificial jurisdictional lines sometimes necessitate appearances before more than one court, litigation in New York can be extraordinarily challenging and costly, potentially requiring the engagement of multiple attorneys for each separate court.
For a multibillion-dollar corporation, this is the cost of doing business, albeit an unacceptable and expensive one. For the mother, private motorist, small-business owner, or a young person caught in the wrong place at the wrong time who now has to fight to clear their names, this can deter them from asserting their rights and, worse, destroy their future.
Based on our combined nearly 65 years of judicial experience, we have seen these issues time and time again.
Thankfully, there is a clear path for reform that has been awaiting action for generations.
It has been decades since any structural changes have been made to the New York State Unified Court System, with much of the foundation of the current structure dating back to the original state constitution in the 18th century. All three branches of New York’s government — as well as major civic organizations and leaders of the legal community outside government — have recognized the need for reform and created commissions that have recommended critical and consensus-based structural changes and simplification of the court system. Yet progress still eludes us.
Most other states have two or even just one trial court. New York has 11 (not counting town and village courts). California and New Jersey, each of which have only one trial court, are among the other states that have successfully instituted the structural reforms New York sorely needs. If we were to replace the current 11 trial courts with two —a Supreme Court and a Municipal Court—we would pave the way for smooth coordination, reduced costs, and equal access to justice for all strata of society. The result would be greater efficiency and less expense for litigants, since judges would be assigned to cases where they are needed, not to any number of courts as dictated by artificial jurisdictional lines.
Year after year, commission after commission and chief judge after chief judge have made the path to reform clear, but Albany has failed to act. The national demand for true justice reform starts with equal access to justice and that requires a court system, both Criminal and Civil, that operates equitably and efficiently for all. It is long past time to make these reforms a reality. We must enact them now.
Rolando T. Acosta is presiding justice, New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department. Randall T. Eng is retired presiding justice, Appellate Division, Second Department. Carolyn Walker-Diallo is New York State Supreme Court justice and administrative judge, Civil Court of the City of New York.