Legal Watch: Will Court Reform Ever Happen?

BY LEGAL LARRY

For the past decade, high profile individuals have called for a reform of the entire court system in the State of New York. Everyone from the chief judge of the highest court to the governor has pitched a “new and improved” court system to streamline the process for litigants and save money. However, over the past few years, court reform has been forgotten leaving those involved highly frustrated and wondering if reform will ever happen.

In 2002, former chief judge of the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest state court) appointed a special commission to assess the need for what was described as functional and operational reform of the court system. The initial commission called New York’s court system the most archaic and dysfunctional in the nation. The commission spent many months reviewing the court system and made recommendations for change. In 2007, four public hearings were held addressing the special commission’s recommendations for reform and/or overhaul. In order to appreciate these comments, let’s review New York’s court system.

In New York, the trial court is called the Supreme Court. There is one Supreme Court in each of New York’s sixty-two counties. Rockland County’s state supreme court is located in New City. The Rockland County Supreme Court has four full time, elected judges. County court has four full time judges that handle criminal matters, and the Surrogate judge handles wills and estate matters.

There are also scores of full time employees working within the court. After Supreme Court, New York has four appellate division courts. These courts are the intermediary appellate courts reviewing determinations from Supreme Court. These courts are spread out throughout the state based upon the geographic areas they cover. Additionally, there is the Court of Appeals, which is New York’s highest appellate court and is located in Albany.

Rockland also has five town justice courts, one in each town. There are also 15 village justice courts in Rockland County. These justice courts are presided over by part-time judges, most of whom are in private practice themselves. In total, there are nearly 1,300 local courts throughout the state. Town and village courts are funded by the respective municipality they are located within.

In Governor Cuomo’s 2012 state budget, $2.3 billion dollars was allocated to the Office of Court Administration, the agency that controls the state courts. The 2012 court budget called for a reduction of $170 million from the prior year, primarily due to lower state revenues. Layoffs, reduced working hours and reduced services were the result of the decreased revenue.

Unfortunately, after the public hearings, the special commission’s proposals went no further. The primary reason the conceptual changes stalled was budgetary. In order to implement any changes or reform, money needs to be spent. With the decrease of funds comes a decrease in implementation of the special commission’s recommendations and proposals.

Now, 10 years after initial attempts to reform the courts and with so many people calling for court reform of the state and local court system, reform seems highly unlikely especially since state and local municipalities are looking to cut budgets. The biggest losers in the failure of court reform are the litigants that turn to the current archaic and dysfunctional system in a desperate attempt to obtain justice.

If you were involved in the frustration of local courts and wish to share your experience, log onto www.rocklandcountytimes and proceed to the Legal Watch section. Share your thoughts and comments with other readers.