Constitutional convention could simplify New York state courts

By Bill Heltzel

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One-third of the New York State Constitution — more than 16,000 words — describes a hodgepodge court system that critics say is more complex than any in the country.

The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, defines the federal judiciary in 375 words.

“There are some in the legal community,” said Stephen P. Younger, partner with Manhattan law firm Patterson Belknap and a former president of the New York State Bar Association, “who feel there is a good opportunity to revamp the courts.”

That opportunity could move closer to becoming reality after Nov. 7 when the electorate votes on whether to hold a constitutional convention. If approved, convention delegates could consider proposals to simplify state courts.

While not yet taking a position for or against a convention, the bar association has issued a report on opportunities to modernize the courts.

Today’s Unified Court System was established in 1962. Despite its name, the courts are “overly complex, unduly costly and unnecessarily inefficient,” the report states.

New York has 11 types of trial-level courts and three appellate-level courts. Trial courts are based on location, for example, from village courts upstate to district courts on Long Island. And they are based on functions, such as crime or family issues.

The multiple jurisdictions can create baffling situations. A domestic violence victim, for instance, might have to go to three courts for relief: county court for criminal issues, state supreme court for a divorce and family court for custody and child support.

“Figuring out which court you belong in,” Younger said, “is problematic.”

The judicial structure has created imbalances at the appeals level, where the number of appellate courts was capped at four in 1894.  Now the Appellate Division Second Department, which hears cases from Westchester and nine other counties, represents about half of the state population and handles nearly two-thirds of the appeals.

Previous proposals have called for adding a fifth division or redistributing the caseload.

For businesses, Younger said, the convoluted court structure causes delays and higher costs.

A 2012 task force concluded that reforming state courts could save $56 million annually. The courts have asked for a $2.18 billion budget for the next fiscal year.

The bar association report identifies other issues that are ripe for discussion. Depending on the court, judges are elected or appointed. Some judges must retire by age 70 but can get extensions to 76, while others have no mandated retirement age. Judicial terms can be four, five, six, nine, 10 or 14 years. And judges in town and village courts do not have to be lawyers.

A constitutional convention would present an opportunity, the report says, “to reorganize, modernize and simplify” state courts. 

Every 20 years voters get to decide if a constitutional convention will be convened. If they give the go-ahead in November, they would choose delegates for a convention next year. Any proposed constitutional changes would then be put to the voters in 2019.

The possibility of major changes, in the courts or any other institution governed by the constitution, poses opportunities and risks and would mobilize proponents and opponents.

The state bar association will probably take a position this summer, Younger said.

“There will likely be certain union interests and vested interests that would like to keep things the way they are,” he said.

It is too early to tell how the political forces will line up, he said, which interest groups will weigh in and “how loud those voices will be.”

“The big question is who will put money behind an ad campaign to get voters out in the fall?”

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About the author

Bill Heltzel
Bill Heltzel has covered criminal justice, courts, government and sports – as a beat reporter and investigative reporter – for daily newspapers in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He worked for Bloomberg LP in training and sales. He joined The Business Journal in 2016.

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