Chief Judge Calls for Overhaul of ‘Obsolete’ Court Structure

By Jennifer Andrus

February 16, 2022

Chief Judge Calls for Overhaul of ‘Obsolete’ Court Structure


By Jennifer Andrus

In her annual State of the Judiciary message, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore laid out an ambitious plan for reforming the New York State court system and streamlining it into just three courts. Speaking by video message from the Court of Appeals in Albany, DiFiore says her office will advocate for an amendment to Article 6 of the New York State Constitution. The bills introduced in both houses of the New York State Legislature simplify the courts into three levels: a single statewide Supreme Court, statewide municipal courts,  and town and village courts.

“Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s bold plan to merge and modernize New York’s courts has the unequivocal support of the New York State Bar Association. For more than four decades, the New York Bar has advocated for simplifying New York’s convoluted system of courts, which are exceedingly inefficient, inordinately complex, and extremely costly. We cannot delay this vitally important initiative if we want to achieve our most cherished ideals — securing public confidence in our judicial system and ensuring access to justice,” said T. Andrew Brown, president of the New York State Bar Association and founder of the law firm Brown Hutchinson.

DiFiore says reforms are long overdue because the last significant court restructuring took place in 1962. She reviewed the conclusions presented in last year’s Report from the Special Advisor on Equal Justice in the New York State Courts, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.  DiFiore equated a streamlined court system with the goals set out in the Johnson report to fix disparities faced by people of color in New York.

‘Reforming the court system to the benefit of all New Yorkers must be our number one priority. If we are truly once and for all to address the harsh realities exposed in Secretary Johnson’s report, 30 years after Chief Judge Sol Wachtler first raised his voice about the treatment of people of color in our courts, we need to act now.”

The bills in the Assembly and Senate are sponsored by Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D- Glen Cove) and State Senator Jamaal Bailey (D- Bronx).

DiFiore also called on the New York State Legislature to increase pay for court appointed attorneys in both criminal and family courts. Known as 18B compensation, attorneys assigned to indigent criminal defendants and parents and children in family court are paid $75 per hour. The legislature has not increased compensation in the program since 2004. DiFiore advocates for an increase in pay to $150 an hour for felony and family court cases and $120 per hour for misdemeanor cases.

The Chief Judge highlighted the mass exodus of assigned counsel from New York to other states, which leaves those behind with increased caseloads. Higher pay, according to DiFiore, will retain and attract more lawyers to do this important work.

DiFiore says the proposed reforms speak directly to heart of the state’s commitment to equal justice.

“Support of fair and adequate compensation for our 18B counsel would send a strong, clear message that the rights and interests of people of limited means are no less important than the rights and interests of financially advantaged New Yorkers. “

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