The present-day court structure was established in 1691, when the New York Assembly established the New York Supreme Court of Judicature with the same common law jurisdiction as the King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer of England. The court was granted jurisdiction in equity in 1846 by statute, taking over equity matters from the Court of Chancery, and became a court of general common law and equity jurisdiction.
The current court structure — made up of 11 separate trial courts with varying jurisdictions — is complex and costly. For example, the Surrogate’s Court, established in 1787, has jurisdiction in probate and administration of estates matters. There is a Surrogate’s Court in each of the sixty-two (62) counties in New York. The Surrogate’s Courts also have concurrent jurisdiction with the Family Courts, over guardianships of the person and property of infants and adoption proceedings. Each county has a separate Family Court. So, there are sixty-two (62) of the courts as well. It is easy to see why any legal proceeding is expensive and the challenge of understanding which court can help you solve a problem.
Like any government agency, the New York State court system has a top executive, the Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. In her February state of the judiciary address, she announced an objective to “modernize” the state’s court system. Since then, many organizations and groups from a wide range of New York life – government groups, advocates against domestic violence, legal service providers, bar associations, community groups, and even private citizens – have banded together to lobby for court simplification.
The Chair of the Judiciary Committee, State Senator Brad Hoylman, promises to hold legislative hearings to consider proposals from all groups and citizens on how to make the New York State Court system more accessible and simpler for state citizens.
The Appellate Division is an appellate court that reviews the decisions of all lower courts in the state, the Supreme Court, the Criminal Court, the Surrogate’s Court, and on and on. There are only four (4) of such courts. Established in 1894, the four (4) departments covered roughly the same population. The Second Department, which covers Queens, Brooklyn, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties covers close to one-half of the state’s entire population. That’s over 10 million people.
To change the current court structure a state constitutional amendment must be passed. To help discussions and create ideas, the Fund for Modern Courts has established a Task Force on the Simplification of the New York State court system. They believe that by consolidating the eleven separate trial courts into a single court of first instance that, judicial operations will be streamlined, save money, help families and increase appellate level diversity.
They want to support the passage of a Constitutional Amendment that would simplify the New York court system by creating a two-part structure, with a new Supreme Court — consisting of the current Supreme Court, County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and the Court of Claims, and a new District Court — consisting of the current District Courts on Long Island, the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts, and the City Courts outside of New York City.
You can access more information about The Fund for Modern Courts at https://moderncourts.org/programs-advocacy/court-simplification/.