Chief judge calls for simplified courts, swifter justice in State of the Judiciary speech


Legislative Gazette file photo
New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore delivers the 2020 State of the Judiciary address, pushing for the court system to be simplified and improved access to justice.

New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore stood before judges, legislators and other state officials on February 26 to give the annual State of the Judiciary Address. She spoke on a wide variety of priorities that include simplifying the court system, expanding opioid treatment courts, and improving access to justice.

While the focus of the address was on simplifying the court system, DiFiore also discussed her plan to continue promoting dispute resolution instead of trials. In addition, DiFiore touched on how she is in favor of bail reform, but is pushing for amendments to give judges more discretion on a case-by-case basis.

A program announced four years ago, which DiFiore calls the Excellence Initiative, was designed to improve the efficiency of court operations and the quality of the justice system by cutting case backlogs and implementing presumptive early alternative dispute resolution for civil cases. The ultimate goal for the Excellence Initiative is to simplify New York’s court structure.

“The single greatest barrier to our ability to deliver the kind of timely, efficient justice services the people in this state expect and deserve is the structure of our court system,” DiFiore said. “It has not been meaningfully updated in more than half a century.”

New York State’s Article VI of the Constitution uses more than 16,000 words to describe in detail the court structure that, according to DiFiore, ties the hands of lawmakers and judges. She plans to consolidate the courts into a more simplified structure.

The simplification would turn the 11 different trial courts in New York into a three-tiered structure comprised of a statewide Supreme Court that merges the Court of Claims, County Court, Family Court and Surrogate’s court into one system; a statewide Municipal Court; and the Justice Courts.

Ultimately this “modern and simplified” change would allow judicial leaders to manage caseloads more efficiently, increase people’s access to justice, ensure trials are faster and keep litigation costs down.

While the court simplification process has received significant support overall, some union leaders are wary of the change due to concerns of job security.

“No jobs – I repeat – no jobs will be lost due to court simplification,” DiFiore said. “Frankly, our court system is under-resourced and one of the major benefits of simplification will be to maximize the efficiency and productivity of the resources now at our disposal.”

Judges and court administrators are also worried about the proposal’s potential impact on judicial diversity. DiFiore expressed her commitment to preserving and improving upon diversity on the bench and referenced the diversity in her judicial appointments as Chief Judge.

The simplification reform is estimated to cost one half of one percent of the annual judiciary operating budget.

Another major focus of the address was criminal justice reform. DiFiore stressed the need to eliminate cash bail as it has been proven to be inherently discriminatory against low-income populations, and black and brown people in particular.

According to an analysis of pretrial detention data by the Prison Policy Initiative, people of color, particularly black people, are 10 to 25 percent more likely to be held pretrial or to have to pay money bail. They also receive bail amounts twice as high as white defendants.

“While defendants with the financial means to secure their freedom returned to their communities, defendants unable to pay cash bail faced the prospect of losing their jobs and having their families and their lives torn apart while they sat in jail waiting for their cases to proceed through the criminal justice system,” DiFiore said.

DiFiore emphasized her support for bail reform while acknowledging its flaws as well, though she expressed her confidence that certain adjustments will be made to improve implementation of the reform. She stressed the need to restore judicial discretion which would allow judges again to have the right to consider when a defendant poses a credible risk of danger to the public.

“History has taught us that any time responsible leaders undertake enormous change, there will always be, in any discipline, consequences that were not, or could not, have been anticipated, and certainly were never intended” DiFiore said. “We must not lose sight of the ultimate goal here, which is to craft a more equitable and effective criminal justice system.”

She hopes that the new legislation will be amended and strengthened.

DiFiore also addressed civil justice, and statewide efforts to implement presumptive early alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for civil litigation in order to increase settlement opportunities, reduce court congestion and provide litigants with more cost-effective options than going through the court system. Eighty-five thousand cases have already been referred to ADR across the state since last fall. Courts are in different stages of rolling out their ADR programs as 2020 continues.

DiFiore touched upon many other aspects of the justice system, including the importance of updated technology in courtrooms, society’s “disturbing decline in civic knowledge” and the importance of civic education.