Henry M. Greenberg testified on Wednesday, November 13 at
a legislative hearing regarding Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s proposal to
reorganize New York’s court system. The hearing was convened by the State
Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees. The following is the prepared
text of his testimony.
The New York State
Bar Association (NYSBA) is the largest and oldest continuously operating state
bar association in the nation.
I commend you for
holding this hearing, as the subject of court modernization and reorganization
warrants the careful study and attention you are giving it.
On behalf of our 72,000 members, I thank you for doing
this important public service.
New York’s court
system has aptly been called “the most archaic and bizarrely convoluted” in the
It is confusing
for litigants and lawyers alike.
As you know, New
York has 11 different trial courts. This is costly for taxpayers and makes case
Each of the 11
trial courts — which is more than any other state — has its own filing system
and administrative staff.
The New York State
Bar Association wholeheartedly supports Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s plan
to eliminate this complex maze of overlapping trial courts and
replacing it with a simplified three-level structure, along with other
For decades, the
State Bar, along with leaders of the judiciary, other bar associations, and
good government groups, have pressed for the need to modernize New York’s court
I personally have
worked on this issue for years.
Sadly, both for
those who work in the system and the people it serves, the calls of court
reformers have largely fallen on deaf ears.
Chief Judge DiFiore is breaking the logjam with a court modernization plan that
will streamline and simplify the system.
It will also:
faster and more efficient resolution of cases and fewer court appearances,
saving money for litigants.
OCA to make best use of limited resources.
diversify the courts, especially outside of New York City.
With respect to
diversity, currently in the third and fourth departments, which serve most of
upstate, the Supreme Court bench is overwhelmingly white and male.
In the year 2019,
that is not acceptable.
Former Chief Judge
Judith Kaye observed that a diverse bench gives the public a belief that they
are included in the justice system.
And, indeed, there
is value in symbolic representation — seeing someone who looks like you on the
demographics are changing. If the judiciary doesn’t change apace, we risk
undermining the public’s confidence in our justice system and respect for the
rule of law.
County, Family, Housing and Surrogate’s Courts within Supreme Court, the Chief
Judge’s reform plan holds the potential of notably increasing the diversity of
the Supreme Court bench outside New York City:
example, assume the Chief Judge’s plan went into effect today, the number of
female Supreme Court judges would increase by 21%.
on the bench would increase by 25%.
In Albany County,
under the proposed plan and following the last election, come January 1, we
would have had, six new diverse Supreme Court Justices — three Family Court Judges
(two women and one Hispanic male), two County Court Judges (an African-American
male and a woman) and the Surrogate’s Court Judge (a woman).
It bears emphasis
that litigants will see the most benefit from the Chief Judge’s plan, because
cases will be resolved faster and require fewer court appearances.
into a host of savings — on everything from child-care to time off from work to
travel costs — all of which arise when one must be in court.
It is hard to put
an exact dollar amount on these savings.
But it’s clear the
current court system takes a significant toll on everyday New Yorkers.
example, a domestic abuse survivor who decides to leave her relationship.
Today, she might
find herself in three different courts to secure justice:
Court for custody and protection of her kids.
Court to initiate divorce proceedings
Court if she wants her abuser to be prosecuted on charges.
The burdens placed
on real people by our current system are intolerable.
confusing hearings and proceedings are not only expensive, they also cause
anxiety, pain, and despair for vulnerable persons.
This no way for a
humane, modern justice system to operate.
We are New
Yorkers. We believe in compassion for all and caring for those who need our
The Empire State
can no longer abide a structure of trial courts unworthy of its citizenry.
The current system
is particularly problematic in the high-volume courts — Family Court, Criminal
Court, and the Housing Court of Civil Court — which primarily serve low-income litigants
of color and are often overcrowded and underfunded.
her 2019 State of our Judiciary Address, Chief Judge DiFiore’s noted how the
State Bar’s historic court reform position parallels her own proposals.
supports consolidating trial courts into the Supreme Court.
believe the Chief Judge and OCA should be able to establish divisions within
those courts, as necessary, and direct court resources where they are needed.
believe all judges impacted by court modernization should continue to be
elected or appointed as they are under existing law.
believe that the population cap that limits the number of Supreme Court
Justices per judicial district to one per 50,000 should be abolished.
also believe that OCA should have the ability to create a Fifth Judicial
Department, which is currently barred by the state constitution.
2018, the Second Department in Brooklyn handled 8305 appeals, compared with the
5949 in the other three departments combined.
Fifth Department would help relieve this caseload and remove yet another
barrier to New Yorkers’ access to justice.
The State Bar urges
the Legislature and all court system stakeholders to support this bold and much
needed reorganization plan.
We know that
making these changes takes time.
As the process
plays out, we will work to help educate the public on why this overhaul is
That way, when it
comes time for voters to weigh in on the necessary constitutional changes, the State
will hopefully finally get the judiciary system it deserves.
About the New York State Bar Association
The New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. Since 1876, NYSBA has helped shape the development of law, educated and informed the legal profession and the public, and championed the rights of New Yorkers through advocacy and guidance in our communities.
Contact: Dan Weiller