The courts of New York face an extraordinary challenge today from both inside our state and beyond. At home, 453,000 cases are pending, a 15% increase since the onset of the pandemic, with litigants struggling to navigate a byzantine and overly complex court system that hasn’t been reformed since the 19th century. Nationally, the reputation of our highest court, the Court of Appeals, for deciding cases only on the merits, not on the political preferences of its judges, is more important than ever as the Supreme Court continues to hand down decisions overruling well-established precedents and taking away long-held rights.
The state’s chief judge has a solemn responsibility far beyond being one of seven members of the top bench. He or she must be a true consensus builder to prevent the escalating and dangerous politicization of the court.
The New York Court of Appeals has long been known as one of the leading state courts in the nation. Its decisions have frequently established precedents followed by state courts across the country. While there have often been disagreements among the members of the court, as is true on any appellate court, its chief judge has historically been able to lead the six other judges in reaching a consensus on its decisions, with those rulings based only on the merits. The next chief judge has a historic opportunity to continue this tradition, shaping jurisprudence in this state for the next generation.
In addition to the chief judge’s role presiding over the Court of Appeals, the administrative responsibilities the constitution confers on the chief are equally as important as they are daunting. The top judge is the “chief judicial officer of the unified court system” and, through a chief administrator whom the chief judge appoints and who reports to the chief, is in charge of a $2.25 billion budget and the 11 different New York trial courts, the most in the country. (California, for example, has one trial court.)
New York’s complex system makes it very difficult for the 15,000 judges and non-judicial personnel to be assigned where they are needed, as distinct from where the Constitution provides they must be assigned. The pandemic and the court backlog resulting from it — resulting in as much as a two-year delay before a woman seeking relief from her estranged husband’s failure to pay child support could obtain judicial relief — highlighted the challenges faced by court administrators because of New York’s complex trial court system.
So, with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore departing, who should fill those shoes? When asked about the vacancy, Gov. Hochul responded: “Regardless of any predispositions, a judge is expected to look at every…