Chief Judge DiFiore Proposes “Long Overdue” Overhaul of New York’s Trial Court Structure
New York’s maze-like trial court system includes 11 separate trial courts, the most in the country. As New York practitioners are well aware, a single dispute may require a litigant to file related claims in multiple courts, resulting in redundant court appearances, duplicative briefs, and unnecessary costs to attorneys and their clients. Critics of New York’s centuries-old system have long advocated for reform. As we explained in a previous post, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore first announced a proposal to streamline the State’s trial court structure in September 2019. Although that initial call for reform did not gain immediate traction in the legislature, on March 3, 2022, Chief Judge DiFiore announced a renewed proposal “to achieve long-overdue reform and simplification of the State’s overly complicated court structure.”
The Renewed Proposal
The latest proposal would include several key components:
- The plan would consolidate New York’s 11 trial courts into three: the Supreme Court, the Municipal Court, and Justice Courts that serve New York’s towns and villages.
- Judges currently serving in the County Court, Family Court, Surrogates Court and the Court of Claims would become Supreme Court justices.
- The constitutional cap on the number of Supreme Court justices (of one judge per 50,000 residents in a Judicial District) would be lifted.
- Judges currently serving in City Courts would become part of the Municipal Court, which would include New York City civil and criminal courts.
- Elected judges now on the bench would continue serving their terms, and no changes would be made to the process by which those judges are elected.
- The legislature would be authorized to change the number of Appellate Division Departments once every ten years to meet the state’s appellate justice needs.
Chief Judge DiFiore’s press release includes statements from over two dozen individuals and organizations—including the New York City Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society, former judges, and prominent litigators in the State—expressing support for the proposed reforms.
While the probable impacts of such an overhaul would be manifold, three consequences stand out. First, the reforms would substantially reduce costs, in both time and money, to litigants and the court system itself. For example, whenever a state and non-state actor are named as parties in a commercial dispute, the plaintiff must file a claim in both the Court of Claims and the Supreme Court—even if the dispute in both courts arises from the very same transaction or occurrence. Eliminating such inefficiencies would reduce litigation costs and ease the burden on the State’s overtaxed court system. In fact, Chief Judge DiFiore estimates that “[c]ourt consolidation could save hundreds of millions of dollars annually by reducing litigation costs that result from lessened productivity, lost wages, attorneys’ fees and related expenses.”
Second, and relatedly, the reforms could help eliminate inequities in the system that tend to hit low-income communities the hardest. As Chief Judge DiFiore also explained in her press release, the fragmented nature of New York’s trial court system disproportionately harms underserved populations because of the needlessly complex division of courts across matters related to child custody, domestic violence, and matrimonial disputes. The same family might, for example, have no choice but to appear simultaneously in the Supreme Court for a matrimonial dispute, in Family Court for any related child custody matters, and in Criminal Court if the case involved allegations of domestic violence. The press release emphasizes that streamlining these processes would provide low-income parties with greater access to justice than the current system allows.
Third, the proposal would create a larger and more diverse pool of Supreme Court and Appellate Division justices across the State. By (i) designating current judges on the County Court, Family Court, Surrogates Court and Court of Claims as Supreme Court justices; and (ii) lifting the cap on the number of Supreme Court justices that may sit in any Judicial District, the reforms would greatly expand the number of Supreme Court justices in New York. Because justices of the Appellate Divisions are selected from a pool of justices of the Supreme Court, expanding the Supreme Court would also create new opportunities for judges from diverse backgrounds, including former commercial practitioners, to become justices in the Appellate Divisions. Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal recognizes this potential in part by authorizing the legislature to change the number of Appellate Division departments once every ten years, which would enable the State to add new justices to the appellate courts as needed.
Chief Judge DiFiore’s proposal faces a number of legal and logistical hurdles. Most importantly, implementing these reforms would require an amendment to the State Constitution. To take effect, the amendment would need to pass in two consecutively elected State legislatures. Chief Judge DiFiore has already proposed such an amendment in both houses, and the amendment is currently pending in the Judiciary Committees of the Senate and Assembly. Even if that effort succeeds, however, the amendment would still need to be approved by voters in a state referendum. If the legislature voted for the amendment immediately this year and next year, the earliest the changes could appear on the ballot would be November 2023. Although Chief Judge DiFiore has expressed optimism about the present level of support for the proposal, these constitutional hurdles leave considerable uncertainty about the likelihood and timing of the reforms’ implementation.
 Press Release, “Chief Judge DiFiore, Senate and Assembly Judiciary Chairs Hoylman and Lavine Announce Introduction of Constitutional Amendment for Court Reform and Simplification” (March 3, 2022), https://www.nycourts.gov/LegacyPDFS/press/pdfs/PR22_03.pdf).
 The Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts, A Court System for the Future: The Promise of Court Restructuring in New York State, Feb. 2007, at 7, http://ww2.nycourts.gov/sites/default/files/document/files/2018-05/courtsys-4future_2007.pdf.
 Press Release, supra note 1 at 3.
 See N.Y. Const. art. VI, § 4.
 N.Y. Legis. Assembly A9401, Reg. Sess. 2021-22 (2022); N.Y. Senate S8424, Reg. Sess. 2021-22 (2022).
 See N.Y. Const. art. XIX, § 1.