Since 1962, individuals, families and businesses in search of justice in New York have had to navigate a uniquely complicated trial court structure that includes a Supreme Court, a Court of Claims, 57 county courts, 58 family courts, 62 surrogate’s courts and 61 city courts outside New York City.
Janet DiFiore, New York State’s chief judge, wants to change this. Under her proposal, instead of having a Court of Claims to hear cases against the state; a Family Court to hear most domestic matters except divorces; a Surrogate’s Court to deal with wills, estates, trusts and guardianships; a County Court to adjudicate felonies; and a Supreme Court to hear most other major disputes, there would be a single Supreme Court into which those other courts would be merged and which would handle all of these cases. Further, 65 lower courts would be abolished and combined into a single Municipal Court that would sit across the state to hear minor criminal matters, housing cases, small claims and other small civil disputes.
Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal is simple. Implementing it is not.
Similar proposals in the past have run into the opposition of long-entrenched, politically powerful interests that favor keeping the courts as they now are. And because this proposal requires an amendment to the state constitution, it must weather this opposition while running a daunting gauntlet requiring passage by two successive state Legislatures followed by a public referendum.
No matter the obstacles, an effort to reform our court structure must be started in the Legislature when it reconvenes in January. And this effort must be successful if New York is to have a court system that meets the needs of a 21st century public.
Hon. Felix J. Catena
The writer is the administrative judge of the New York State Unified Court System, Fourth Judicial District.