Helping Local Courts, New York Style

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CourtReference recently took a look at the way New Jersey municipalities are combining their courts to save money and increase efficiency. Other states are using this and other types of organizational change to improve their court systems. New York is taking a slightly different approach.

Within each of New York’s Judicial Districts, each county has its own uniform set of courts: Supreme, Family, Surrogate’s, and County. Major cities, and each of New York City’s five boroughs, also have a City Court. All of these courts are part of the New York State Unified Court System, supported by the Office of Court Administration and funded by the state. It’s a modern system with centralized administration and finance, secure courtrooms, and sophisticated case-management systems.

Yet these courts include less than a quarter of all the trial courts in New York State. Outside of the major cities with their structured, state-supported courts are almost 1300 Town Courts and Village Courts – also known as Justice Courts. They are technically part of the Unified Court System but they are not centrally administered. They are funded by their own localities, and have not had access to the resources enjoyed by the state-funded courts. Their justices do not have to be attorneys.

Justice Courts in larger towns may have modern courtrooms, complete staff, and case-management systems similar to those in the state-funded City Courts. But many smaller Town and Village Courts do not have a dedicated courtroom; they hold their sessions in a fire station, a utility room at the Village Hall, or at the justice’s home. Their budgets are small and their only staff may be a part-time court clerk, who is often the justice’s spouse. Yet they have broad jurisdiction, including general civil cases, small claims, landlord-tenant, traffic infractions, and misdemeanor trials. They arraign felony cases. If Family Court is not in session, they act as Family Court judges.

Past studies and commissions have suggested combining local Town and Village Courts into fewer and more centralized District Courts, in the name of efficiency and uniformity. Some of these proposals have been put to popular vote, and most have failed. There are a handful of District Courts on Long Island, but even there Town and Village Courts are far more numerous. The majority of New Yorkers like having their own local court, even if that means the courtroom isn’t spiffy or the justice didn’t go to law school.

New Jersey’s state government and court system is actively supporting the combining and sharing of municipal courts. New Jersey is our most densely populated state, and having municipalities close together means it’s relatively easy to combine their courts. New York, despite the massive population of New York City, is actually mostly rural. It would be a lot less convenient for “upstate” New Yorkers to get to court in a neighboring town or village.

In light of New York’s demographics and past rejections of court consolidation, the New York Unified Court System has chosen to enhance the Town and Village Courts rather than consolidate them. In 2007, New York implemented a plan to assist them with court and financial operations, security, and education. Now each Judicial District has a Supervising Judge to serve as a liaison between the Town and Village Courts and the Unified Court System. The state has set up a training program for the justices and is funding security upgrades, case management technology, and financial operation upgrades.

The number of New York Town and Village Courts isn’t changing, but their resources are. Some are moving into new courtrooms, putting up court websites, and offering online information and fine payment systems. Just as CourtReference provides the most up-to-date location and makeup of combined New Jersey municipal courts, we will continue to monitor and update the locations, contact information and resources of the New York Town and Village Courts.

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