Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, who passed away at age 77 on January 6, 2016, left us some unfinished business to do: court reform. In 1998 Judge Kaye lobbied for a constitutional amendment that would have consolidated and simplified the New York trial court system. She hoped to get the legislative approval for a constitutional amendment and the required referendum during the 1998 and 1999 legislative sessions, followed by a vote on the referendum at the 2000 election.
On March 6, 1998 Judge Kaye spoke at a CityLaw Breakfast at New York Law School. In her talk she provided a persuasive argument in support of her proposal. A video tape of Judge Kaye’s talk is for the first time now available on the CityLand and CityLaw websites.
In her talk Judge Kaye described the existing so-called unified New York Court system as the “most un-unified, dis-unified, fragmented, cumbersome, complicated, antiquated trial court system in the United States.” She called the system wasteful for litigants, costly to the State and local governments, and an inefficient nightmare to manage. Judge Kaye cited her 1994 success at jury reform as proof that reform was possible.
Court reform, however, did not pass and was never voted on by the public. The need remains. In the question period following Judge Kaye’s talk, Brendan Sexton, a former City Sanitation Commissioner, suggested that the major public criticism of the courts was the time it took to reach decisions. Judge Kaye responded that consolidation would help speed decisions and lower costs. Eighteen years later the criticism remains true and so does the solution.
Bar associations, Governor Andrew Cuomo and others are now developing positions with respect to the upcoming referendum in 2017 on whether to call a constitutional convention for New York State. In 1997, the voters decisively voted down a convention. Court reform in 2017 is a positive reason for voting “Yes” for a constitutional convention. A constitutional convention could achieve the consolidation and simplification of the State trial court system for which Judge Kaye fought in 1998. That would be a great tribute to Judge Kaye, and a huge benefit for the people of New York State.