Chief Judge Unveils Plan To Fix Housing Court
By MARK TOOR
In her annual State of the Judiciary Speech Feb. 7, State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore advanced her call from last year for reforms in Housing Court by presenting a 40-page report that called for longer hours, better technology and a commitment to closing cases.
She recalled that driving away from last year’s speech, “I saw a large crowd of people standing in the cold on the sidewalk outside of a building. I asked Officer Sam Torres, who was accompanying me that day, if he knew what was going on. He quietly said to me, ‘Judge, that’s your Bronx Housing Court.’”
'Roadmap to Improve'
The report contains recommendations from her Commission on the Future of New York City Housing Court, that she said would “provide the roadmap we need to strengthen Housing Court operations and improve the efficiency and quality of the litigation experience. And we are wasting no time implementing the commission’s excellent recommendations. “Judge DiFiore also joined Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo and others calling for an overhaul to bail and speedy-trial laws, fueled by concerns over violence at Riskers Island. There, she said, “too many [inmates] are being held on low-level felony or misdemeanor charges, unable to make bail. Many pose no real threat to public safety. “She said the courts were engaging with the opioid crisis, with special parts in Buffalo and The Bronx and statewide training for court officers in the use of Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose.
An Old, Familiar Story
The report by the Housing Court commission quoted another one filed 21 years earlier that said, “The combination of massive caseloads, litigants unfamiliar with the legal process and limited judicial resources has resulted in an environment that more closely resembles a hospital emergency room that a court.” The new report said, “The problems described above largely remain.”
Among the recommendations:
o Assign court-appointed lawyers as early in the case as possible.
o Stagger court openings, starting at 9:30 a.m., and keep some open at night.
o Monitor the duration of cases and require written reports if a case is now resolved within three appearances.
o Introduce arbitration and mediation as alternative ways of resolving disputes.
o Bring technology to the courts.
o Renovate and expand court facilities and reduce time waiting in security lines.
o Hire additional Judges, Court Attorneys, interpreters and other staff members.
Judge DiFiore discussed the progress of her Excellence Initiative, an effort she began after taking the post in 2016 to eliminate case delays and “attain excellence in every facet of court operations.”
“I am pleased to report that outside New York City our cases are being resolved more efficiently and promptly, and our backlogs are shrinking rapidly,” she said. “In New York City, we have made significant progress in many of our highest-volume courts and our leadership team has made operational changes to set the stage for further improvement.”
Among the successes she highlighted were a 61-percent reduction in the oldest pending misdemeanor cases in New York City; and reductions in the oldest pending felony cases of 91 percent in the Westchester area, 77 percent in the Rochester area, 65 percent in Suffolk County and 56 percent in the upstate Saratoga Springs area.