Editor's note: An abridged version of this column ran in the Nov. 20 edition of The Palladium-Times. It appears here in full.
To the editor,
The Office of Court Administration (OCA) proposes to “consolidate” New York’s trial courts.
The stated reason: the court structure is “complex,” and “outmoded.” However, announcing that our excellence-achieving court system is complicated does not make it true. More importantly, OCA’s proposal does not consolidate courts; instead, it consolidates power in the hands of court administrators, at the expense of the electorate, taxpayers and the people the courts were created to serve. It is a threat to an independent, locally elected judiciary comprised of judges with specialized knowledge and skills.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, we support OCA’s efforts to explore, examine and promote measures to alleviate inefficiencies, reduce expense and minimize delays in litigation. However, the sweeping structural changes OCA proposes are not grounded on any current economic or empirical data that suggests merger would lead to a better or more efficient judicial system. Indeed, our courts are operating admirably. As Chief Judge Janet DiFiore recently stated “our Judiciary is growing stronger with every passing day. Our judges and court staff are . . . sending a clear message that this independent branch of government can be counted on to do the people’s business - without fear or favor, and with all due speed and alacrity.” OCA February 26, 2019 Press Release.
New York’s first courts were established in the 1600s. Recognizing the diversity of complex legal issues faced by the courts, early on in the New York State Constitution, our founders established six separate and distinct trial courts in Upstate New York: Supreme Court, County Court, Family Court, Surrogates Court, Court of Claims and City Court. This tapestry of courts provides both a court of general jurisdiction – the Supreme Court – as well as other distinct courts of limited jurisdiction with dedicated judges possessing specialized knowledge and skills to accomplish their own important work. The judges who serve in these specialized courts (excluding the Court of Claims’ judges who are appointed by the Governor) are locally-elected by the people they serve – the people who are best able to assess the qualifications, temperament and skills of the local judicial candidates. These courts and these specialized judges have well served the people of Upstate New York.
The battle cry for “consolidation” began only late in the 20th century, after creation of OCA - the unified, bureaucratic arm of the courts led by a Chief Judge and a Chief Administrative Judge. For good reason, OCA’s push for consolidated power repeatedly has failed to gain traction.
OCA maintains it wants to consolidate the six specialized Upstate New York courts. (OCA proposes a similar plan to the courts in New York City). However, what OCA proposes in Upstate New York is to create a “consolidated” Supreme Court out of five separate constitutionally created courts and then to divide that “consolidated” Supreme Court into six separate and distinct “divisions.” The current Supreme Court will be the General Division, the current County Court will be the Criminal Division, the current Family Court will be the Family Division, the current Surrogates Court will be the Probate Division, the current Court of Claims will be the State Division, and the current Commercial Division will remain intact. The current City Court will be renamed the Municipal Court. In other words, this so-called court consolidation does not change the number of separate courts, it merely changes the five specialized “Courts” into six specialized “Divisions,” and renames the City Court.
In short, what OCA proposes is not consolidation. Moreover, any suggestion that OCA seeks to simplify our “complex” court structure to make it easier for litigants to navigate is belied by the fact that over the past 25 years OCA has created a minimum of ten additional specialty courts: Community Court, Drug Treatment Court, Family Treatment Court, Domestic Violence Court, Integrated Domestic Violence Court, Mental Health Court, Sex Offense Court, Veterans Court, Human Trafficking Court and, as recently as 2017, an Opioid Court, and OCA’s proposal does not in any way alter or abolish these ten specialty courts.
One of the most alarming aspects of OCA’s proposal is that it removes the power of citizens to meaningfully select the judges in their communities who will decide, for example, family matters, or probate disputes, or criminal cases, or general civil disputes, and vests this fundamental constitutional right in the hands of non-elected administrators. It also transfers to court administrators the power to place locally elected judges anywhere in the State without regard to competencies, constituencies, geography or knowledge.
Thisshift of power to OCA comes at a substantial cost. When OCA proposed this idea in 1987, an independent accounting firm, KPMG, determined that at that time it would cost taxpayers some $38 million per year. That translates into approximately $89 million in 2019 dollars.
Rather than drastic reconstruction of our time-honored State Constitution, at enormous economic, electoral and efficiency costs, any deficiencies within the current judiciary should be addressed with a more targeted, goal-oriented initiative, that neither abolishes the rights of our citizens nor diminishes the abilities of our specialized judges to serve their constituents.
Hon. Anthony F. Aloi
Ret. Onondaga County Court Judge
Hon. David R. Demarest
Ret. Supreme Court Justice, 4th JD
Hon. Robert G. Hurlbutt
Ret. Supreme Court Justice
Appellate Division, 4th JD
Hon. Robert F. Julian
Ret. Supreme Court Justice, 5th JD
Hon. Robert J. Lunn
Ret. Supreme Court Justice
Appellate Division, 4th JD
Hon. Eugene E. Peckham
Ret. Surrogate Court Judge, Broome County
Hon. Phillip R. Rumsey
Ret. Supreme Court
Appellate Division, 3rd JD
Hon. Norman I. Siegal
Ret. NYS Court of Claims Judge and Supreme Court Justice