The New York Constitution Can Help Fix the Backlog of Appeals in the Appellate Division, Second Department

Everyone admits that the backlog of pending appeals in the Appellate Division, Second Department is a problem. As Presiding Justice Alan Scheinkman acknowledged in an op-ed in the NY Law Journal last fall, “it can take as long as 18 months for a civil appeal to obtain a place on the court’s day calendar and then more time for a decision to be rendered.” That’s 18 months after an appeal is fully briefed. And to get that far in the first place it could take up to a year from when the notice of appeal is served. So, in reality, the Second Department is often looking at appeals that are pending for almost three years before they are decided.

Recognizing this huge issue, Presiding Justice Alan Scheinkman of the Second Department announced a number of procedural reforms in September 2018 that were designed to decrease the Court’s backlog of appeals. First, the Court increased its oral argument calendars from 20 to 24 cases per day. That’s a good first start. Judge Scheinkman also noted that the Court would use specialized benches for an additional sitting in some long delayed matrimonial, Commercial Division, and land use and zoning appeals.

Third, Judge Scheinkman announced that he was reemphasizing the Court’s requirement of mandatory mediation for pre-perfected appeals through the Court’s Civil Appeals Management (CAMP) program. Judge Scheinkman’s hope is that early mediation will help new appeals, and long delayed ones, settle, which would help reduce the Court’s backlog. Finally, Judge Scheinkman also forecasted that the Second Department would be much less receptive to extensions than it had been in the past. Under the new Appellate Division Uniform Rules, parties can obtain two 30-day extension for their principal briefs by stipulation or letter agreement, but any further extension requires a formal motion “upon a showing of good cause.” The Court will not show much empathy for claims of a heavy workload or a pending reargument motion in the trial court. As Judge Scheinkman put it,

Extension motions should be confined, as the rule says, to limited circumstances where good cause exists, such as where an unexpected health issue or other unforeseeable event has occurred.

In addition to Presiding Justice Scheinkman’s reforms, a proposal was introduced in the Legislature last year to split the Second Department into two separate courts—a North division covering appeals from Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester counties and a South division covering appeals from Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties.

That’s an interesting proposal, but there are two catches. First, the bill received little support last year and died in the Judiciary Committee of the NY Assembly, the only house in which the bill was introduced. Second, splitting the Second Department requires a constitutional amendment. The NY Constitution expressly provides that there shall be 4 departments of the Appellate Division, and specifies their boundaries.

And the constitutional amendment process is a long and troublesome one. The proposed amendment first has to pass in two successive legislatures, and then be approved by the people of this State at a general election. Normal people, however, aren’t generally thinking about how to fix the backlog of appeals in the Second Department and whether splitting it in two makes sense for the judiciary. So, finding the necessary support for a constitutional amendment may prove difficult.

But the Second Department doesn’t need the rigmarole of a constitutional amendment to fix its backlog of appeals. The New York Constitution already provides two solutions that I noticed. First, section 4(a) of the Judiciary article of the NY Constitution grants the Legislature the right to change the boundaries of the Appellate Division departments every ten years as long as it doesn’t change the total number of departments. Here’s how they’re currently divided:

The Second Department covers the 2nd, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 13th Judicial Districts, while the First Department covers the 1st and 12th, the Third Department covers the 3rd, 4th, and 6th, and the Fourth Department covers the rest.

So, how can the Legislature change the boundaries of the Second Department to reduce its backlog of appeals? Well, it’s all just moving pieces to a puzzle. The 9th Judicial District could become part of the Third Department. Or maybe just move Putnam, Dutchess, and Orange counties into the 3rd Judicial District, which would take them from the Second Department into the Third. Or to get all crazy with it, move Onondaga County into the 6th Judicial District, trade the 5th Judicial District from the Third Department to the Fourth in exchange for the 6th Judicial District, make the 9th Judicial District part of the Third Department, and send the 2nd Judicial District to the First Department. Oh, plus a player to be named later and cash considerations. The possibilities are endless. I’m fairly certain that it’s been more than ten years since the Legislature changed the boundaries of the Appellate Division, so this option is on the table.

If that’s too confusing for you, there’s a second way. Tucked away in the judiciary article is a never-mentioned provision giving the four Appellate Division Presiding Justices the right to call a meeting when one of the Departments is unable to complete its work within a reasonable time and transfer appeals to the other Departments. Who knew? Particularly, Article VI, section 4(g) of the Constitution provides:

So here, because the Second Department has been unable to decide all of its appeals within any reasonable period of time, it could be time for the four Appellate Division Presiding Justices to call a meeting of the families and transfer a bunch of Second Department appeals upstate. The Third and Fourth Departments decide fewer appeals after oral argument each year than the Second (1,579 in the Third Department and 1,444 in the Fourth Department compared to 3,815 in the Second Department in 2017).

Sure, this option would tax the Third and Fourth Department Justices with more work, but overall it should reduce the time that it takes to have appeals decided throughout the State. A little increase in the times from notice of appeal to decision in the Third and Fourth Departments should be more than offset by the significant reduction in the Second Department. And the caseload would be spread out across the four Appellate Division departments more equitably.

There are solutions to fix the huge backlog of undecided appeals in the Second Department. The courts just need to know where to look. Although Presiding Justice Scheinkman’s efforts are certainly laudable, and may well help reduce the problem to an extent, I think the time has come for more drastic action than adding 4 more cases to the daily argument calendar can provide. The time is here to look to our Constitution and use the powers that the Legislature and Judiciary have been granted to change the boundaries of the Appellate Division departments or transfer Second Department appeals to other departments. Indeed, three years for an appeal is just too long for any party to have to wait.

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