Court Restructuring, Economic Development, and the State of New York Courts

Last night, New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman gave his annual address on the state of the judiciary.  In his introduction, the Chief Judge echoed a familiar sentiment to those who follow most of the recent developments out of Albany: “As Governor Cuomo has said, now is the time to reinvent government and to work smarter.  Now is the time, not just to find ways to reduce costs, but more importantly, to rethink and fundamentally transform the way we do business.” The address went on to highlight a number of social initiatives, including: raising the age at which defendants in nonviolent cases are considered adults from 16 to 18; preventing wrongful convictions through a mix of eyewitness identification safeguards, videotaped interrogations, expanding the DNA data bank and enlarging convicted defendant’s rights to access to the new DNA bank; and enhancing legal services to underserved populations, particularly to mortgage foreclosure cases and indigent legal defense.

The Chief Judge also noted that New York courts “must seek to create an even more hospitable environment for business.”  To this end, the Chief Judge called for expanded electronic filing (which is still not widely required in New York) and further announced the creation of a “Task Force on Commercial Litigation in the 21st Century” to help reinvigorate the Commercial Division of the state’s Supreme Courts.

However, absent from the Chief Judge’s address was any call for court consolidation or restructuring.  The current structure of New York’s Courts has been described as:

The most archaic and bizarrely convoluted court structure in the country. Antiquated provisions in [New York’s] state Constitution create a confusing amalgam of trial courts: an inefficient and wasteful system that causes harm and heartache to all manner of litigants, and costs businesses, municipalities and taxpayers in excess of half a billion dollars per year.

New York currently has a court system that features eleven trial courts, (California, who has twice the population, only has one), and a disproportionate appellate court system which divides the state into four appellate departments (one department contains half of the state’s population) which was set up in the 1890s. Compare the structure of New York’s court system to other major commercial states, such as California or Delaware (see charts for all the states at the Court Statistics Project):

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The idea of court consolidation in is not new in New York State, and a number of appointed Task Forces have visited the problem time and again (the Tweed Commission issued reports between 1955-58, the Dominick Commission between 1970-73, the Vance Commission between 1974-76, and proposals in 1986 and 1997).

Continuing this trend, in 2006 former Chief Judge Kaye appointed a similar Task Force to assess the effective of the state’s current court structure and propose appropriate reforms.  The group, commonly referred to as the Dunne Commission, issued a report which proposed consolidation of the state’s trial courts, and the creation of a fifth appellate department. After the report was issued, the recommendations were endorsed by former Chief Judge Kaye and then Governor Elliot Spitzer. As the Commission found:

[I]n the millions of cases that are handled in [New York] state courts every year, people waste countless hours making redundant court appearances, filing unnecessary papers and briefs, and suffering through delays caused by courthouse backlogs and inefficiencies.  In addition to confusion and aguish, the practical effect of this is lost wages, lost productivity, and higher costs and attorney’s fees for individuals, businesses and government entities. Given the number of cases affected (3.7 million cases are resolved annually in the state courts) these hidden costs add up to $502 million per year.

Although the $502 million certainly seems extreme, the Dunne Commission was quick to point out that this estimate had “been vetted by economists, and the [] National Center for State Courts has not only endorsed [the] projections but referred to them as ‘conservative.’”  Through restructuring, the State would see a budget savings of approximately $60 million a year, while private individuals, businesses and municipalities would realize a cumulative savings of over $440 million.  The report further supplied an appendix which included an economic analysis to show the basis for these financial conclusions. Older reports by New York’s own Unified Court System have also projected significant savings for the state.

Notably, the Dunne Commission did not focus on New York’s vast (and oft criticized) network of Town and Village Justice Courts, and recommended that further research be done for their possible role in restructuring. The State Comptroller’s Office has a court consolidation pamphlet for municipalities, which, if done properly “could help increase the efficiency and effectiveness of justice courts without jeopardizing local court revenues or lessening access to justice.”  Local court consolidation could save municipalities budgets until greater reform is accomplished. For example, in New Orleans the Inspector General issued a report on the performance of the municipality’s City Courts and Traffic Courts. The report found that by consolidating courts, the City would see approximately $2.5 million in annual budget savings.  As states around the country reel from budget constraints, court restructuring initiatives may continue to get a harder look.

Courts around the country are increasingly finding themselves slowed by increased caseloads, yet smaller budgets. New York’s court system is no exception, and after a particularly harsh fiscal year which saw deep budget cuts that caused widespread court delays and personnel shortages, in 2012 it will operate a court system with a budget  that has been called “the bare minimum.”   An overburdened judiciary should be an area of deep concern for all citizens.

Government Reform Proposed by GOP, Dems, in Minnesota

Following the infamous government shutdown in Minnesota last summer (which the State is still feeling the effects of), Republican members of both the House and Senate began gathering a variety of proposals for the current legislative session. The list of proposals, commonly called “Reform 2.0” covers a variety of areas, including economic development, education, health care, and government reform.

As State Rep Keith Downey noted, “[o]ne of the biggest challenges we face in state government is we’re about 20 years behind in improving state operations.” To that end, the “Reform 2.0” includes a number of  government reform provisions that would: make government pay and benefits competitive with the private sector, reduce the number of departments in the Executive Branch, require local governments to present budget and spending information in an easier to understand format for the general public, work with local governments on mandate relief, require the state budget to include federal insolvency contingency planning, and fix the problems which were encountered during the government shutdown.

Not surprisingly, State Democrats remain skeptical of the Reform 2.0 proposals. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen was reportedly disappointed by the GOP plan, echoing the claim of other Democrats who believe that many of the ideas are recycled from previous, unsuccessful proposals. To counter, Democrats have announced their own reform package which would emphasize reforms in the Legislature. Highlights of the Democratic package include: a plan to prevent future state shutdowns, requiring politicians to disclose any outside income, preventing private meetings whenever the State Capitol is closed, prohibiting public meetings between 12 a.m. and 7 a.m., prohibiting officials of political parties from holding public jobs, and a provision on “unallotment.”

Washington State Democrat Looks at Jobs, Environmental Cleanup, and Education in Government Reform Legislation

Kevin Ranker, a Washington State Senate democrat, has been supporting government reform legislation that hopes to increase jobs and economic development by reforming the current environmental cleanup laws of the state.  Further, Ranker is looking at reforming the performance review system for teachers and principals while at the same time making such a system uniform and state-wide.

Senate Bill 6211 introduced by Ranker will reform the State and Local Toxics Account law, making it possible for toxic waste sites to be cleaned up faster.  This bill will create jobs as there are 56 sites that need to be cleaned up, creating approximately 620 direct jobs and 517 indirect jobs.  Aside from creating jobs, Ranker notes that a more efficient and timely environmental cleanup of toxic sites will create a healthy and thriving community, which is the foundation for improving economic development.

Along these lines Senate Bill 6170 has been introduced to protect the state’s waterfront landscape.  This bill would reform the waterfront development permitting process creating a single permit scheme.  This would replace the current regime that requires a developer to get several permits from both the state and local governments.  This expedited process would be available to projects that create a substantial number of jobs, maintains those jobs, and has environmental benefits.  Such legislation would increase economic development by getting rid of the complex state and local permitting process, which often times precludes most developers from successfully developing in the waterfront areas.

Education Reform

Senate Bill 6177 looks to increase the performance of Washington State public schools by restructuring the performance evaluation of teachers and principals.  Simply using “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” is not enough information to truly get a proper performance evaluation.  Accordingly, this legislation would create a rating system for teachers and principles that would increase performance and growth of Washington’s public schools.  Taking it one step further, this legislation seeks to implement a state-wide performance evaluation system.

With these new items on the legislative agenda Washington is looking to take steps towards government reform.

Land Banks: Preventing the Next Generation of Ghost Towns?

Population losses, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and general urban decay have left neighborhoods around the United States abandoned and unoccupied. Abandoned property can result in chronic problems for both the remaining property owners, who are faced with reduced property values and an increased criminal presence; and municipalities, which can find itself with lower property tax revenues and an increased demand for public safety services.

In order to cope with these problems, governments have taken a renewed interest in Land Banking. The idea of land banks is not new (the earliest contemporary land bank was established in St. Louis in 1971), however, in the wake of the Great Recession, many state and local governments are taking a harder look at land banking as a way to stabilize reeling metropolitan areas.  

Land Banking refers to the policy where local governments, through a public development authority or other public agency, acquire abandoned property and then either convert the property into a productive use (through renovation, demolition, sale, or other means), or hold the parcels for long term land use planning. When disposing of property, land banks don’t operate in the usual sell-to-the-highest-bidder-as-quickly-as-possible mentality that plagued tax foreclosure sales (which usually resulted in the properties going to vacant landlords), instead, most land banks are guided by disposition policies which favor buyers who can help the long-term revitalization of the community, such as charities or nonprofits. Each land bank has different policies and prerogatives to accommodate the distinctive needs of each municipality.

Probably the most well-known “modern” land bank is the Genesee County Land Bank Authority (GCLBA), located in Flint, Michigan. Through state legislation, the GCLBA is able to take clear title to abandoned property in half the time, eliminating tax liens and resulting in hardship postponements. The GCLBA then has a variety of programs the abandoned lot can find itself in: demolition, housing renovation and rental, sales, side lot transfer (a program where the adjacent property owner may purchase the vacant lot for $25 plus fees), as well as a variety of gentrification programs. The GCLBA’s disposition of property is governed by a variety of policies which favor nonprofit, government, or charitable buyers who present the best opportunity for continued neighborhood revitalization. The GCLBA has acquired and encouraged the re-use of more than 4,000 residential, commercial, and industrial properties since its inception. However, continuing financial woes of both Flint and the GCLBA leaves the overall effectiveness of land banks in question.

Regardless, an effectively implemented land bank is believed to offer municipalities a number of benefits, including: acting as a catalyst for economic development, stabilizing municipal finances through both increased (or stablized) tax receipts and the decreased need for public safety expenditures; expanded housing opportunities, decreased criminal activity, and a decreased number of public nuisances. Although the results of land banks are subject to interpretation, a 2009 report issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has noted the benefits of land banks in Michigan, Maryland, and Georgia. Additionally, recent legislation in New York and pending legislation in Pennsylvania, among other states, suggests that land banks could be more widespread in the future.

A more in-depth explanation of Land Banks, all by Professor Frank S. Alexander, can be found here (from the Journal of Affordable Housing), here (from the Brookings Institute), and here (from the Center for Community Progress).