Since the middle of the 20th Century, every Chief Judge of the State of New York has proposed simplifying New York’s trial courts through the merger of some of those courts. Most Governors have supported this reform as well as some legislators. Numerous blue-ribbon panels have studied that issue and all recommended some form of simplification. And yet nothing has been done to amend the Constitution to accomplish this goal. The structure of New York’s trial courts remains essentially the same as it was 65 years ago, even though that structure was found to be inefficient, confusing and unable to meet the needs of all those who rely on the courts to resolve their problems.
Modern efforts to reform the structure of the New York’s courts, as they are now constituted, date back as far as 1953, when then Governor Thomas E. Dewey, in his annual message to the Legislature, called for the creation of a special commission to study the state’s judicial system and to prepare recommendations for modernizing the administration, procedure and structure of the courts. In response the Legislature established a Temporary Commission on the Courts (The “Tweed Commission”) to make a comprehensive study of the judicial system, including its administration, structure, procedures and personnel.
1954 – 1958
From 1954 to 1958 the Tweed Commission issued five reports, which made a number of recommendations for significant changes in New York’s court structure, including: merger of the Court of Claims with Supreme Court;
- merger of the County Court, Surrogate’s Court and the then Children’s Court into a single County Court;
- the establishment of a separate Family Court (to replace the existing Domestic Relations and Children’s Courts); and
- merger of New York City’s lower courts into a General Court for the City.
1959 – 1961
Between 1959 and 1961, the New York State Legislature adopted a comprehensive constitutional amendment drawing upon some (not those relating to court simplification or merger) of the recommendations of the Tweed Commission and in two separately elected Legislatures and a referendum was approved by the voters at the November 1961 General Election.
This amendment to the constitution, which has remained unchanged since its adoption, defines our present trial court structure.
In 1970, at the request of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Legislature established a temporary State commission (the “Dominick Commission”) to study and make recommendations with respect to the courts and in 1973, the Dominick Commission issued its report, including recommendations to:
- merge the Court of Claims, County Court, Family Court and Surrogate’s Court into a renamed Supreme Court (i.e., “Superior Court”); and
- continuation of existing lower courts – NYC Civil and Criminal Courts, District Courts, City Courts and Town Courts, except for Village Courts.
There was no legislative action on these proposals.
In 1976, the Task Force on Judicial Selection and Court Reform (the “Vance Task Force”) recommended the adoption of a new Judiciary Article for the Constitution, which among other things called for a restructuring of the trial court system, including the merger of the Supreme Court, the Court of Claims, the County Court, the Surrogate’s Court, the Family Court and the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts into a Superior Court.
This proposal was not acted upon by the legislature.
In 1981, Governor Hugh Carey and Chief Judge Cooke both publicly call for merger of New York’s trial courts – Court of Claims, County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court, NYC Civil and Criminal Courts into Supreme Court. And in 1983, the state Senate established the Select Task Force on Court Reorganization under the chairmanship of H. Douglas Barclay, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to study the need for increased efficiency in the courts. In its report, issued in May 1983, the Task Force called for:
- merger of the Court of Claims and all of the major upstate trial courts (Supreme Court, County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court) into a new Superior Court structured along county lines; and
merger of the Court of Claims and all of the major upstate trial courts (Supreme Court,
- County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court) into a new Superior Court structured along county lines; and
- the merger of the New York City courts into the Superior Court.
In 1985, Chief Judge Wachtler expressed support for a variety of court reforms, including trial court merger, in his first State of the Judiciary Address. In that same year the Senate Republican majority sponsored a court merger constitutional amendment providing for a three-year phased- in merger of the county-level courts, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts and the District Courts with Supreme Court.
Once again, nothing happened to change the structure of the trial court system.
In 1986, the Senate Judiciary Committee published a report entitled, Order in the Courts: Weighing the Impact of Court Merger, Appellate Reform and Judicial Selection Proposals in New York State, which reviewed testimony given at the public hearings the Committee held in the autumn of 1985, analyzed the issues in detail and recommended trial court merger plan. Following that, the Legislature gave first passage to a constitutional court merger proposal jointly drafted on the final night of the 1986 legislative session by representatives of the Governor, both houses of the Legislature and the Judiciary. The proposal would have merged the County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court, Court of Claims, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, and the District Courts into the Supreme Court and create a Surrogate’s Division of Supreme Court in selected counties.
This constitutional amendment did not receive second passage and the structure of the courts remained essentially the same as it had been since 1961.
During the 1994 legislative session, the Governor, the Chief Judge, the Assembly and the Senate all proposed court reform proposals. The Governor and Chief Judge proposed a phased-in court merger plan that would make County, Family and Surrogate’s Courts a part of the Supreme Court; the Court of Claims would become part of the Supreme Court nine months later; and finally one year later, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, the District Courts and City Courts with full-time judges would be merged. The Senate Republicans proposed merging the Supreme Court, County Court, Surrogate’s Court and the Court of Claims; and proposed the creation of a second tier of courts to include Family Court, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, District Courts and upstate City Courts.
None of these proposals were adopted.
In 1997, Chief Judge Judith Kaye submitted a comprehensive court restructuring proposal to the legislature, which would include among other things:
- merger of County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and the Court of Claims into the Supreme Court;
- the subdivision of the Supreme Court into a series of divisions, including a family division, commercial division, criminal division, probate division and public claims division; and
- consolidation of the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, the District Courts and the upstate City Courts into a statewide District Court system.
No legislative action was taken on these proposals.
In her 2001 State of the Judiciary Address, Chief Judge Kaye again made a strong plea for prompt legislative action to merge the trial court system, and in 2002, she submitted a modified version of her 1997 court merger proposal to the legislature. In support of this submission, the Office of Court Administration prepared a report on the anticipated budgetary impact of trial court merger and identified potential savings to the State of over $131 million in the first five years following the effective date of a merger of New York’s nine State-funded trial courts into a three-tiered structure consisting of a Supreme Court, a Surrogate’s Court and a District Court.
The Legislature did not act on her proposals and the structure of the courts remained the same.
In 2006, Chief Judge Kaye established the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts (the “Dunne Commission”) to conduct a thorough study of the State Court System and to propose appropriate reforms. A year later, the Dunne Commission issued its report, recommending among other things:
- merger of the State’s major trial courts into Supreme Court with specialized divisions within Supreme Court; and
- merger of courts of lesser jurisdiction, excluding Town and Village Justice Courts, into a District Court system.
Once again the Legislature took no action.
Read the “Dunne Commission” Report by the Commission of the Future of the Courts of the State of New York.
Read the Appendices to the “Dunne Commission” Report by the Commission of the Future of the Courts of the State of New York with charts, diagrams and supporting data collected by the Commission.
In her 2019 State of Our Judiciary address, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore called for constitutional modernization of the New York State Courts, saying even though there have been improvement improvements in the court system through the Excellence Initiative, “… we do remain both hampered and frustrated by the limitations imposed on us by our fragmented and long-outdated organizational structure of 9 separate trial courts…” (11 if you count our town and village courts).”
The Chief Judge noted that the current system prevents the courts from being able to “… respond to identified problems by responsibly shifting or reallocating our staffing and resources – the way any other rational business organization would do.” And she called the current system a “mind-boggling maze” that “… wastes resources, increases litigation costs and does not serve the public well.” The Chief Judge proposed amending the state constitution to create a two-tiered trial court structure, consisting of a superior court and a district court in order to achieve greater operational efficiencies, lower litigation costs, enhance access, provide better court services and upgrade the quality of judicial decision-making.
She said, “… the time has come to modernize the structure of our judicial system and allow us to operate at our highest and best level. The Chief Judge also committed to encourage the Governor and the State Legislature to work with the courts to develop and give first and second passage to meaningful constitutional reforms that can be submitted to the voters for their approval on the 2021 ballot.
The Chief Judge said, “This is a matter of the utmost concern, directly affecting our ability to meet our 21st century governance responsibilities and the justice needs of the people of the State of New York.”