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State must reform confusing court system

For nearly 30 years, the more rural counties of the Eighth Judicial District have been denied a sitting state Supreme Court Justice because of the logistics, expenses and political realities of being part of a sprawling district.

Although the district, where I serve as Administrative Judge, consists of eight counties in Western New York and the Southern Tier, one large county, Erie County, has controlled the judicial election since the very early 1990s. Currently no one from Allegany, Chautauqua, Genesee, Orleans or Wyoming County serves on the state’s main trial court. Cattaraugus will soon lose Judge Jeremiah Moriarty who got to the Supreme Court by appointment versus election.

That means if a resident of any those largely rural counties has a Supreme Court case (which means all divorce, medical malpractice, product liability and commercial cases), I will need to send a judge from Buffalo to them or a local judge will have to be designated an “acting” Supreme Court Justice.

That’s not right. Every county has a distinct culture, a different bar and diverse needs and expectations. But under our current court structure, it is unavoidable.

Under a court reform initiative proposed by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, which I heartily endorse, every county would be represented on the state’s premiere trial court while New York’s uniquely byzantine and balkanized court system would undergo the makeover it has so desperately needed for decades.

New York has the most complicated, convoluted and byzantine court system in the entire country. Now, we have a Supreme Court, a Court of Claims, 57 County Courts, 58 Family Courts, 62 Surrogate’s Courts, two New York City lower courts, two District Courts on Long Island and 61 City Courts outside New York City. With all those courts, each with their different and sometimes overlapping jurisdictions, litigants sometimes must go to multiple courts in multiple courthouses and appear before multiple judges to resolve what is really one case. People often come to the courts in times of desperation and the structure of our courts only exacerbates their stress.

Consider, for example, a woman in an abusive marriage and the obstacles the current court structure places in her path. More than a decade ago when Integrated Domestic Violence courts were implemented everyone recognized that trips to three different courts to address the problems of divorce, criminal charges related to the abuse, and issues of visitation and support belonged in front of one judge, when historically at least three different courts were involved.

The court system did an end-run in that scenario through administrative manipulation, but the structural and systemic shortcomings endure, and it’s time for a permanent fix rather than the finger-in-the-dike approach we are taking now.

The Chief Judge would merge several courts into Supreme Court and combine 65 lower courts into a single Municipal Court. That means the locally elected County Court, Family Court and Surrogate’s Court judges in every county would become Supreme Court justices. Since they would continue to be selected on a county-wide rather than district-wide race, it would ensure that every county was represented on Supreme Court.

In addition to geographic diversity, the initiative would result in greater demographic diversity on our main trial court, as well as the Appellate Division, the court that has the last word on almost all cases in our district. Only elected Supreme Court justices are eligible for appointment to the Appellate Division, so the pool of qualified judges is rather small. Under the Chief Judge’s proposal, it would be much larger, and it would instantly make judges who are expert in criminal law (such as County Court judges), family law (Family Court judges) and estate law (Surrogate’s Court judges) eligible for the Appellate Division.

Achieving reform necessitates an amendment to the State Constitution, which requires passage not just once, but twice by the State Legislature, before the measure can go to the voters. But it’s an effort that must be made and must be made soon. Too often, our current court structure is an obstacle to the only reason it exists — to serve the public.

Hon. Paula L. Feroleto is a New York state Supreme Court Justice and the Administrative Judge for the Eighth Judicial District. In that capacity, she is responsible for overseeing court operations in the trial courts in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties.

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