Communications Office:
David Bookstaver, Director
Kali Holloway, Deputy Director
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Gary Spencer
Public Information Officer
Court of Appeals
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Carey R. Dunne
(212) 450-4158

Date: Sept. 17, 2008

Hon. Ann Pfau
Chief Administrative Judge

Seal of the Unified Court System

www.nycourts.gov/press

Special Commission Charged with Scrutinizing New York’s Justice Court System Releases Landmark Report

NEW YORK – The Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts, convened in 2006 by Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye to study and propose reforms to the state court system, today released a comprehensive report detailing its findings and recommendations to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and quality of New York’s Justice Courts.  The report of the commission – chaired by Carey R. Dunne, Esq., a partner at the law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City – is based on the most extensive review of the Justice Court system in New York’s history, including visits to town and village courts in every judicial district in the state.

Chief Judge Kaye said, “The Justice Courts are New York’s oldest tribunals, dating back centuries, and today continue to serve a critical role in the state’s justice system, handling more than two million cases each year and collecting more than $210 million in fees annually. The work of the commission is unprecedented, the most exhaustive study of these courts in their very long history. Based on a fact-finding mission that included visits to almost 100 courts, in every corner of the state, the commission has given us a detailed and informed accounting of these courts, their strengths, their deficiencies, and the challenges they face. The commission has also offered concrete proposals to further strengthen the courts and ensure that they are well equipped to fulfill their important role in the twenty-first century. I offer my sincerest thanks to Chairman Dunne and all the commission members for dedicating their labors and expertise toward achieving a strengthened court system for all New Yorkers.”

Chairman Dunne said, “It is our hope that this study paves the way for significant reform and improvement of these historic courts, by moving us beyond the old debate between those who urge that the Justice Courts be abolished and those who argue that they should be left alone. Based on the commission’s comprehensive review of these courts, we offer a pragmatic middle ground, with specific recommendations that build on the strengths of these courts and effectively address their shortcomings.”

The Special Commission – a blue-ribbon panel of lawyers, civic leaders, government and private sector representatives, academics and sitting and former judges, including town and village justices – began its study of New York’s Justice Courts in April 2007. Commission members visited courts across the state to observe proceedings, inspect facilities and learn about court operations. In town-hall meetings and interviews, they discussed court issues and needs with town and village justices, local officials, public and private attorneys, law enforcement representatives and others. The panel also held public hearings in Albany, Ithaca, Rochester and White Plains, where it heard testimony and received submissions from 85 witnesses. 

Among the commission’s findings and recommendations are:

  • Legislative Enactment of a Process for the Consolidation of Justice Courts    
    The current array of more than 1,250 Justice Courts has grown on an ad hoc basis over hundreds of years, with no rational assessment of state or local needs. This large number of local courts imposes enormous burdens on taxpayer-funded resources, such as state and county law enforcement, legal and probation services. The commission proposes that the Legislature establish a locally-based process that will result in a reduction in the number of Justice Courts. In addition to increasing efficiency and reducing redundancy, fewer town and village courts would allow more targeted and meaningful support to upgrade facilities and security of the courts that remain, and would also make it more feasible to provide higher judicial salaries, which could in turn encourage more qualified candidates to seek office.
  • Promulgation of Minimum Standards    
    The commission found a wide range of conditions under which the Justice Courts function. The commission therefore proposes the promulgation of minimum standards – for court facilities, resources, security and other areas – to ensure that all Justice Courts are safe and fit for judicial proceedings.
  • Protecting Litigants’ Rights and Improving the Bench    
    The commission found that the majority of town and village justice are hardworking, experienced and are adequately performing their important duties, and that the rights of those who appear in our Justice Courts can be protected without abolishing non-attorney justices. The commission proposes to further improve the quality of the Justice Court bench and safeguard the rights of litigants through the legislative enactment of a minimum age requirement of 25 for incoming justices, and a minimum education requirement of a two-year degree from an accredited college. The commission also recommends further training for town and village justices as well as legislation granting defendants who appear before a non-attorney justice in a misdemeanor criminal case with an automatic “op-out” right to have his or her case heard by an attorney judge.
  • Reform of Justice Court Funding    
    The commission found that achieving Justice Court reforms would require a rethinking of how Justice Courts are funded. One proposal is an increase in state funding for the Justice Courts through the expansion of the Justice Court Assistance Program, an application-based grant program administered by the Office of Court Administration (OCA) that provides town and village courts with targeted funds to help support court operations. The commission also proposes that the Legislature and OCA undertake a study of the Justice Court fine and fee system and propose reforms that, in part, would ensure that revenues generated are used to provide courts with the basic resources needed to operate properly.

 

In addition, Chief Judge Kaye today released the Action Plan for the Justice Courts – Two Year Update, a status report on the implementation of the comprehensive plan announced in November 2006 to provide increased state support for the local Justice Courts. The Action Plan was designed to provide immediate assistance to the Justice Courts, without the need for a fundamental restructuring of the system. Key accomplishments under the Action Plan include the appointment of Supervising Judges for the Justice Courts, state assumption of the responsibility for automation in the Justice Courts, the requirement that, for the first time, all Justice Court proceedings be recorded, and increased state aid for improving Justice Court facilities and security. Chief Judge Kaye said, “When it became increasingly clear in recent years that many local courts lacked the resources and support they needed to deliver the high quality of justice that the public deserves, we the in the state court system did not wait. I am pleased that our aggressive action is paying dividends in ways that the courts and the public they serve can feel.

The report of the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts and The Action Plan for the Justice Courts – Two Year Update is located on the Unified Court System website at www.nycourts.gov/whatsnew.

 

 

Web page updated: September 17, 2008