ALBANY — A restructuring of New York's highly complex network of courts is long overdue, according to the system's top administrators.

"If this was a private sector organization, it wouldn't last six months," Lawrence Marks, the state's chief administrative judge, said at a legislative hearing in Manhattan this week.

It isn't often the leaders of a governmental behemoth such as New York's court system would advocate for a wholesale redesign of the bureaucracy they oversee.

But Marks, New York's Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and others are doing not only that, they're also urging lawmakers to initiate a major consolidation of the system with legislation. The proposed changes, ultimately, would require voter approval as the plan entails amending the state Constitution.

In his remarks to lawmakers, Marks described the current system — with 11 separate trial courts — as "complicated, outdated and inefficient."

"We're unable to efficiently attack surges in cases," he said, arguing administrators need flexibility to assign judges where they are needed most.

Judges, he noted, are "still digging out" from the cascade of housing foreclosure cases that landed in courthouses a dozen years ago.

The proposed consolidation calls for county courts, Surrogate's Courts, the Court of Claims and Family Courts to all be merged into the state Supreme Court network.

Marks estimated the pricetag for achieving that at $13 million — less than 1% of the entire budget for the state court system.

While Marks suggested the reboot of the court system would lead to greater diversity among the pool of state judges — with more African Americans, Latinos and women going on the bench — the plan is encountering skepticism on that front.

Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels, president of the Latino Judges Association, said her group will withhold support for the plan "until information is provided that shows how this would improve the diversity of the judiciary." Sharing her skepticism was Sen. Luis Sepulveda, D-the Bronx, who questioned how the plan would boost the number of Latino and African American judges.

The push for greater diversity on the bench got a plug from Henry Greenberg, president of the state Bar Association. He noted the overwhelming number of judges on the appellate courts across much of the upstate region are white males.

If the judiciary fails to keep pace with changing demographics, Greenberg warned, "We risk undermining the public's confidence in our justice system and respect for the rule of law."

However, Greenberg said, DiFiore's plan is expected to increase the representation of minority groups and women on the bench, particularly upstate.

Lawyers with significant experience in Family Court said the consolidation plan would benefit litigants who now often have to go to multiple courts for cases involving custody, child support and divorce, even though the matters involve the same set of facts.

But Assembly Member Tom Abinanti, D-Westchester, questioned how the plan would improve the logjam some with legal needs now face. He suggested improvements could be made without a wholesale rebuilding of the current system.

"I just don't understand how giving the chief judge the power to move judges statewide from place to place solves the problem," Abinanti said. "It sounds to me like somebody has got to clean up the Family Court and make it work better with the Supreme Court."

A prime advocate for the consolidation effort as well as a backer for bringing greater diversity to the bench, state Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-Manhattan, said he believes there is a significant chance that lawmakers will embrace the concept, though he admitted it would be "a lift."

Hoylman told CNHI lawmakers will continue to examine the concerns raised by professional organizations that have been cool to the proposal.

"It's important to understand this proposal doesn't change in any way the way Supreme Court justices are selected," Hoylman said.

He added: "What it does do is create new Supreme Court judges and a wider pool from which to choose appellate judges. I think that will increase the chances for diversity — but that needs to be examined closely and that's what we will be doing."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com .

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