Constitutional convention could be opportunity to simplify court system

Feb 21, 2017

There is a sort of public battle over whether New Yorkers should approve a ballot question in November about holding a Constitutional Convention to re-work the state's elaborately detailed Constitution. Lawyers say this could be an opportunity to re-structure the state's court system.

The state's founding document is changed almost every year, becoming ever longer and more complex. The courts are described in New York's Constitution in excruciatingly detailed fashion: 16,000 words. Compare that to the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who needed only 375 words - although a lot more legislation was passed in the centuries since.

Credit New York State Courts System

The State Bar Association's Committee on the New York State Constitution is out with a long report on what might be done to make the court system work better and more efficiently. Rochester Lawyer Bob Witmer, a former state bar president who worked on the report, says a lot of people wind up in multiple different courts on possibly one case.

"There are examples now of people who have difficulties that need to go to Surrogate's Court, a criminal court or the Supreme Court and it's very difficult for them to know without a lawyer or even with a lawyer," he says. It becomes a logistical nightmare."

That includes cases like divorce with child custody issues. Such a case would be heard in both State Supreme Court and Family Court. Witmer says the public is confused by so many courts.

"To a layman, to someone seeking justice, it's very difficult to understand and to explain," he says. "This is the reason why there's been such a push to really integrate those courts. That's one of the issues that could be addressed in a constitutional convention."

The last Constitutional Convention - or Con Con - was in 1967, called after voters ordered it in 1965. Topics that might be covered in a new convention include how judges are chosen, how many there are and how many courts there are.

If voters approve it this November, the convention would actually start April 2, 2019.