Cityview: Full Court Press

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Anna left her abusive husband earlier this year–she could no longer take his beatings and didn’t want her daughter exposed to the violence. Even before she moved out, her husband vandalized her belongings, violating an order of protection that barred him from harassing her.

Anna (not her real name) didn’t find solace in the justice system, however. She first went to Family Court for child support so she would have the money to take care of her daughter. To obtain a divorce, Anna had to appear in State Supreme Court. To get the order of protection, she had gone back to Family Court. And she is the complaining witness in a criminal case pending against her husband in State Supreme Court for breaking that order of protection. All four cases are currently pending–in four different Courtrooms, in front of four different judges.

The fragmentation of New York’s courts is not simply an inconvenience for Anna. Repeated hearings in different courts make it nearly impossible for her to hold down a job. She’s had to talk about her traumatic experiences over and over again. Her husband is taking advantage of the convoluted legal process to intimidate and harass her: He has threatened to fight for custody unless she agrees to drop the criminal and child support cases. Anna is struggling to establish her independence and support herself and her child–a difficult task even without juggling four cases that each requires numerous return visits.

At Victim Services, we try everything we can to help our clients, but there’s nothing we can do about Anna’s predicament. New York State’s justice system consists of no fewer than nine separate trial courts, including supreme, family, criminal, surrogate’s and city and county courts. Subdivisions also abound. For example, housing and small claims courts are part of New York City’s civil court.

New Yorkers who go in front of a judge face the most confusing system in the nation. As a litigant, your first task is to guess which of the nine courts–each with its own jurisdiction and procedural rules–is appropriate for your case. For a parent looking to get her kids back from foster care, Family Court is the place to be. But if the children were removed because their apartment had dangerous structural problems, she must first get Housing Court to certify that the landlord has made repairs. This is confusing to most lawyers. For the public, and particularly for people who have difficulty understanding English, it can be a serious deterrent to seeking justice.

In 1997, New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye proposed a common-sense solution: consolidating the courts into a two-tier system, consisting of Supreme Court and District Court. The Supreme Court would include divisions for criminal, commercial, family, public claims and probate matters. The District Court would handle misdemeanors and civil cases involving less than $50,000.

Easier said than done. The courts’ Byzantine structure can’t be changed without changing the state constitution, which was revised in 1962 and again in 1978 to combine the array of jurisdictions–around in one form or another for centuries–into the misnamed Unified Court System. The change has to be approved by two-thirds of the state legislature for two terms in a row. Last year, the constitutional amendment had strong support in the Senate, but it failed to pass in the Assembly. This year, the legislature is trying again. For the sake of their constituents, the Assembly needs to come around.

As trying as New York’s courts are for all litigants, it is in family violence cases like Anna’s that the absurdity of the existing system is most apparent. Bouncing from court to court, as Anna has been doing, is not unusual. A recent survey of New York City Family Court judges found that about 15 to 20 percent of their dockets consist of cases in which related Supreme Court proceedings are pending. Such cases often result in inconsistent decisions. For example, Supreme Court orders an abusive husband to stay away from a woman’s home. But in a separate action, a Family Court judge issues an order for visitation that allows the batterer to pick up his child at the home every week, Under the current structure, these two courts don’t often communicate, leaving victims vulnerable.

Restructuring the courts in a vacuum is not the solution. Increased funding for legal services is essential. Long waits for lawyers discourage domestic violence victims from pursuing legal remedies. Whether or not the court merger succeeds, the courts must undertake an aggressive public education campaign to explain their structure. Finally, the court system should establish an advisory board for ongoing feedback from citizens and court employees. With a truly unified court, communication-both within the courts and between them and the people who use them–will be more important than ever.

Jeanne Mullgrav is the director of court programs for Victim Services.