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Court Restructuring, Economic Development, and the State of New York Courts

February 15, 2012

Last night, New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman gave his annual address on the state of the judiciary.  In his introduction, the Chief Judge echoed a familiar sentiment to those who follow most of the recent developments out of Albany: “As Governor Cuomo has said, now is the time to reinvent government and to work smarter.  Now is the time, not just to find ways to reduce costs, but more importantly, to rethink and fundamentally transform the way we do business.” The address went on to highlight a number of social initiatives, including: raising the age at which defendants in nonviolent cases are considered adults from 16 to 18; preventing wrongful convictions through a mix of eyewitness identification safeguards, videotaped interrogations, expanding the DNA data bank and enlarging convicted defendant’s rights to access to the new DNA bank; and enhancing legal services to underserved populations, particularly to mortgage foreclosure cases and indigent legal defense.

The Chief Judge also noted that New York courts “must seek to create an even more hospitable environment for business.”  To this end, the Chief Judge called for expanded electronic filing (which is still not widely required in New York) and further announced the creation of a “Task Force on Commercial Litigation in the 21st Century” to help reinvigorate the Commercial Division of the state’s Supreme Courts.

However, absent from the Chief Judge’s address was any call for court consolidation or restructuring.  The current structure of New York’s Courts has been described as:

The most archaic and bizarrely convoluted court structure in the country. Antiquated provisions in [New York’s] state Constitution create a confusing amalgam of trial courts: an inefficient and wasteful system that causes harm and heartache to all manner of litigants, and costs businesses, municipalities and taxpayers in excess of half a billion dollars per year.

New York currently has a court system that features eleven trial courts, (California, who has twice the population, only has one), and a disproportionate appellate court system which divides the state into four appellate departments (one department contains half of the state’s population) which was set up in the 1890s. Compare the structure of New York’s court system to other major commercial states, such as California or Delaware (see charts for all the states at the Court Statistics Project):

       Image          Image

The idea of court consolidation in is not new in New York State, and a number of appointed Task Forces have visited the problem time and again (the Tweed Commission issued reports between 1955-58, the Dominick Commission between 1970-73, the Vance Commission between 1974-76, and proposals in 1986 and 1997).

Continuing this trend, in 2006 former Chief Judge Kaye appointed a similar Task Force to assess the effective of the state’s current court structure and propose appropriate reforms.  The group, commonly referred to as the Dunne Commission, issued a report which proposed consolidation of the state’s trial courts, and the creation of a fifth appellate department. After the report was issued, the recommendations were endorsed by former Chief Judge Kaye and then Governor Elliot Spitzer. As the Commission found:

[I]n the millions of cases that are handled in [New York] state courts every year, people waste countless hours making redundant court appearances, filing unnecessary papers and briefs, and suffering through delays caused by courthouse backlogs and inefficiencies.  In addition to confusion and aguish, the practical effect of this is lost wages, lost productivity, and higher costs and attorney’s fees for individuals, businesses and government entities. Given the number of cases affected (3.7 million cases are resolved annually in the state courts) these hidden costs add up to $502 million per year.

Although the $502 million certainly seems extreme, the Dunne Commission was quick to point out that this estimate had “been vetted by economists, and the [] National Center for State Courts has not only endorsed [the] projections but referred to them as ‘conservative.’”  Through restructuring, the State would see a budget savings of approximately $60 million a year, while private individuals, businesses and municipalities would realize a cumulative savings of over $440 million.  The report further supplied an appendix which included an economic analysis to show the basis for these financial conclusions. Older reports by New York’s own Unified Court System have also projected significant savings for the state.

Notably, the Dunne Commission did not focus on New York’s vast (and oft criticized) network of Town and Village Justice Courts, and recommended that further research be done for their possible role in restructuring. The State Comptroller’s Office has a court consolidation pamphlet for municipalities, which, if done properly “could help increase the efficiency and effectiveness of justice courts without jeopardizing local court revenues or lessening access to justice.”  Local court consolidation could save municipalities budgets until greater reform is accomplished. For example, in New Orleans the Inspector General issued a report on the performance of the municipality’s City Courts and Traffic Courts. The report found that by consolidating courts, the City would see approximately $2.5 million in annual budget savings.  As states around the country reel from budget constraints, court restructuring initiatives may continue to get a harder look.

Courts around the country are increasingly finding themselves slowed by increased caseloads, yet smaller budgets. New York’s court system is no exception, and after a particularly harsh fiscal year which saw deep budget cuts that caused widespread court delays and personnel shortages, in 2012 it will operate a court system with a budget  that has been called “the bare minimum.”   An overburdened judiciary should be an area of deep concern for all citizens.

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