New York Court of Appeals’ Year in Review, COVID-19 Edition

This article first appeared in the December 2020 edition of the NYSBA Journal, which can be found here. A direct link to the article is here.

2020 has been a year unlike any other. With the spread of COVID-19 growing in New York exponentially in March, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and the entire court system decided to take unprecedented action to limit in-court proceedings to only those essential for the administration of justice. The Court of Appeals was no exception. And yet, through it all, the Court diligently continued its work, deciding novel issues of statewide importance and ensuring that wheels of justice continued to turn. Here’s a quick look back at this extraordinary year at the Court of Appeals.

COVID-19 Brings Social Distancing to the Court of Appeals

Although the Court at first decided to proceed with the oral arguments scheduled for its March session in person, with an option for argument by videoconference, only the first day of argument ended up going forward. It was a remarkable sight to see the Court observing social distancing by moving Chief Judge DiFiore, Judge Rivera, and Judge Stein from their normal positions on the bench to the advocates’ tables in front of the bench, while Judges Fahey, Garcia, Wilson, and Feinman spread out along the bench behind them. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Behind the advocates was an eerily empty courtroom that echoed with each argument. As the pandemic continued, the Court decided to take a small number of its April/May Session arguments on submission, and then in June, held virtual arguments for the first time in the Court’s history. Even now when arguments are back to being heard in person, only the Judges and the advocates are allowed in the courtroom, everyone is wearing masks, the argument podium has been removed, and counsel are arguing the most important cases in the state seated at tables like it’s a roundtable discussion on the finer points of New York law. These are remarkable times.

The Court of Appeals’ Business Continues Nevertheless, But at a Reduced Volume

Even with the pandemic whirling around us, the Court of Appeals continued its regular practice of deciding cases about 30 days after they were argued, and handed down a number of noteworthy decisions this year. The total number of appeals that the Court has decided, however, has decreased considerably. For example, between 2017 and 2019, the Court decided an average of 128 appeals per year (approximately 99 in the normal course on full briefing and oral argument, and 29 on the sua sponte merits track on letter briefing only per year). This year, in contrast, through the end of October, the Court has decided 45 appeals in the normal course and 16 appeals on the sua sponte merits track. If that pace continues, the Court will end up deciding only about 76 appeals this year, which is well below its average for the last three.

Although much of the decline can be chalked up to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the reduction in the total volume of appeals that the Court of Appeals decides is consistent with a troubling trend that can be observed over the last number of years. Between 2010 and 2016, the Court decided an average of 234 appeals per year, about 190 of which were in the normal course with oral argument. But in 2017, that number began to dip significantly. That year, only 142 appeals were decided, 110 of which were following full briefing and oral argument. In 2018, it was 136 appeals (104 in the normal course), and in 2019, it was down to 108 appeals (only 83 in the normal course).

The significant reduction in the Court’s caseload means that it is not only much harder to get a case to the Court of Appeals (the Court granted only 2.1% of its civil motions for leave to appeal in 2019, and has granted leave in only 20 civil cases this year so far), but also to get women and other historically underrepresented groups opportunities to argue in our state’s highest court. In 2019, for example, the Court of Appeals heard 168 total oral arguments, only 50 of which were given by women. Although the 30% rate is larger than the rate seen at the United States Supreme Court, for example, the rate masks a significant divide between arguments in criminal cases and those in civil cases. Women argued in 44% of criminal cases in 2019 (31 criminal arguments out of 71 total), but only 20% of civil cases (19 civil arguments out of 97 total). The 168 total available argument spots in 2019 was down from the 372 total available arguments in 2016 and the 420 total available arguments in 2012.

In 2020, the Court of Appeals heard only 115 oral arguments (42 in criminal cases, 73 in civil cases), well off the pace of last year because the pandemic forced the Court to cancel all but one argument day in March, April, and May. Again, there is a marked divide in the rate of arguments by women in civil and criminal cases. Although women have argued 50% of the criminal cases this year (21 out of the 42 available arguments), they have only argued 25% of the civil cases (18 out of 73 arguments). It’s time for the Court tackle this issue head on. Besides granting leave to appeal in more cases to provide more total opportunities for argument in the state’s most important cases, the Court should, at the very least, amend its rules to expressly encourage arguments by women and other underrepresented advocates in our state’s highest court.

Now, on to this year’s most notable Court of Appeals decisions:

Matter of Vega (Postmates Inc.—Commissioner of Labor), 35 NY3d 131 (Mar. 26, 2020): In a decision that could significantly drive up costs for businesses in the gig economy, the Court held that couriers for Postmates—a delivery business that uses a website and smartphone app to coordinate deliveries from restaurants and stores to people across the country—are employees, not independent contractors, requiring Postmates to make unemployment insurance contributions for them. The Court held that Postmates exercised more than incidental control over the couriers’ work by “dictating to which customers they can deliver, where to deliver the requested items, effectively limiting the time frame for delivery and controlling all aspects of pricing and payment,” even though the couriers could choose their own work schedules and delivery routes. Although this decision was made in the context of unemployment insurance, its rationale for holding the gig economy couriers to be employees could also have significant impacts in wage and hour cases based on the misclassification, and could establish that the couriers should be entitled to a number of other employment rights that are typically afforded to employees, but denied to independent contractors.

Bill Birds, Inc. v Stein Law Firm, P.C., 35 NY3d 173 (Mar. 31, 2020): What lawyer hasn’t worried that a client may one day sue over legal advice that was given during the course of a representation? If you have, this Court of Appeals decision is worth reading. Narrowing the possible avenues for such a suit against lawyers and law firms, the Court held that claims brought under Judiciary Law § 487 (1), which provides that an attorney “who . . . [i]s guilty of any deceit or collusion, or consents to any deceit or collusion, with intent to deceive the court or any party” is guilty of a misdemeanor and may be liable to the injured party for treble damages in a civil action, does not “extend to negligent acts or conduct that constitutes only legal malpractice,” and does not cover pre-suit advice. Thus, the Court affirmed the dismissal of a section 487 (1) claim against a law firm that had alleged the plaintiffs were “induced to file meritless lawsuit based on misleading legal advice.”

Matter of Regina Metropolitan Co., LLC v New York State Div. of Hous. & Community Renewal, 35 NY3d 332 (Apr. 2, 2020): In a case that was poised to have a huge impact on rent stabilized housing in New York City and on landlords in particular, the Court of Appeals held that the proper method for calculating the recoverable rent overcharges for apartments that were improperly removed from rent stabilization during receipt of J-51 benefits was to start with the rent charged four years before the case was filed, adding any legal increases that applied during the statute of limitations period, and then compute the difference between the legal rent and the rent that was actually charged. Resolving a previously unsettled question, the Court held that the rental history that occurred before the four-year lookback period could not be considered. Notably, however, the impact that this decision could have had was largely muted when, while these appeals were pending, the Legislature amended the Rent Stabilization Law to change the rent overcharge calculation. Although the tenants asked the Court to apply the new amendments retroactively to their cases, the Court declined to do so because it would have imposed a huge unexpected liability on the apartment owners that was not contemplated under the pre-amendment RSL, and would not have comported with due process.

Colon v Martin, 35 NY3d 75 (May 7, 2020): When a claimant looks to sue a municipality in tort, they must first serve the municipality with a notice of claim. Under General Municipal Law § 50-h, the municipality has the right to depose the claimant before an action is commenced. Resolving a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeals held that when there is more than one claimant named in a notice of claim, the municipality has the right to depose each separately outside the presence of the other. The statute’s reference to permitting the claimant to have “such examination in the presence of his or her own personal physician and such relative or other person as he or she may elect” refers only to the physical examination contemplated by the statute, not to the oral deposition. Thus, failure of the claimants to accede to the municipality’s request to conduct separate section 50-h depositions warranted dismissal of the action.

Matter of National Fuel Gas Supply Co. v Schueckler, 35 NY3d 297 (June 25, 2020): Given New York’s bountiful oil and natural gas reserves, development of interstate transmission lines has consistently been proposed across the state. In the course of those projects, development companies generally must establish, under Eminent Domain Procedure Law § 204 (B), that the projects have a public benefit before the companies may exercise eminent domain powers to take the easements necessary to build the pipeline. In NFG, the Court of Appeals was asked whether a company that has been issued a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission certificate of public convenience and necessity for a project, based upon a review similar to that required under EDPL 204 (B), could continue to exercise eminent domain powers even if the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation had denied a required water quality certification for the project. The Court held that it could. The DEC’s denial of the water quality certification did not impair the validity of the FERC certificate of public convenience and necessity, the Court held, because the FERC certificate only conditioned construction of the project on receipt of the water quality certificate; it did not condition the exercise of eminent domain powers.

People v Hinshaw, 35 NY3d 427 (Sept. 1, 2020): The Court of Appeals’ precedent, especially when it concerns the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, regularly shows that the state constitution continues to play a significant role in protecting the rights of New Yorkers. This time, the Court clarified that, under the state constitution, New York requires probable cause of a traffic infraction for law enforcement to conduct a traffic stop of a car, or reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. As the Court noted, this upholds New York’s tradition of providing more protection for New Yorkers under the state constitution than is otherwise provided under the federal constitution, which permits traffic stops based only upon reasonable suspicion.

Hewitt v Palmer Veterinary Clinic, PC, __ NY3d __, 2020 NY Slip Op 05975 (Oct. 22, 2020): As everyone remembers from law school, pet owners get one free bite before they can be held strictly liable for injuries that their pets cause. The one free bite rule is essentially a notice requirement; once a pet owner knows that their pet has vicious propensities because the pet has bitten or injured someone before, the owner may be held liable without regard to their negligence for any subsequent injury that the pet causes. The one free bite prior notice rule, however, doesn’t apply to veterinary clinics, the Court of Appeals held in Hewitt. Veterinary clinics are already on notice of the dangers that may exist in their waiting rooms when a pet that is ill, distressed, or has just been treated is brought into that space. Indeed, the Court held, because the clinics have “specialized knowledge relating to animal behavior and the treatment of animals who may be ill, injured, in pain, or otherwise distressed” and “are uniquely well-equipped to anticipate and guard against the risk of aggressive animal behavior that may occur in their practices—an environment over which they have substantial control, and which potentially may be designed to mitigate this risk,” no prior notice of an animal’s vicious propensities is required before the clinic may be held liable for injuries caused by a pet in the clinic’s waiting room.

The Court of Appeals Expands Digital Filings and Amends Service Requirements

Whether due to the COVID limitations on in-person filings, or the Court just decided it was time to expand electronic filings, the Court amended its rules, effective May 27, 2020, to require, for the first time, parties to file digital copies of all civil motions and opposing papers to those motions, and jurisdictional inquiry responses. Before this amendment, the Court’s rules had limited digital filings to the briefs and records filed on appeals. Unlike filing on the NYSCEF system, however, the digital filing does not actually constitute service or filing of the motion. That’s still governed by the CPLR and when the paper copy of the motion papers hits the counter in the Clerk’s Office and is stamped received. But the new rule amendments provide that the parties have 7 days after the return date of the motion to upload their digital copies of the motion papers.

What’s most notable about this rule change to me is that the Court is significantly reducing the amount of printed paper copies of the motion papers that have to be filed in the Clerk’s Office (from 6 copies to 1), and eliminating entirely the requirement to file paper copies of the Appellate Division briefs and record that must normally accompany civil motions for leave to appeal. Another change to note: under the Court’s rules, counsel used to have to serve the other side with two copies of a motion for leave to appeal, and the affidavit of service needed to note specifically that two copies were served. No longer. Now, only one copy of the motion needs to be served.

Looking to 2021 at the Court of Appeals

Throughout 2020, the Court of Appeals has adapted to the difficult times, shifted its procedures to ensure the safety of its staff and the parties that appear before it, and set a great example for how to remain productive during an unprecedented pandemic. Looking to next year, the Court will decide another slate of novel issues, including whether the state constitutional ban on gambling precludes the legislature from authorizing daily fantasy sports without a constitutional amendment and whether the Forever Wild clause of the New York Constitution precludes the State from cutting the trees necessary to create community connector snowmobile trails throughout the Adirondacks, but will be doing so with a new Associate Judge on the bench.

On November 2, 2020, Associate Judge Leslie Stein announced that she will be retiring from the Court of Appeals bench effective June 4, 2021. That was very surprising news. Judge Stein, who joined the Court in 2015, was not slated to reach mandatory retirement until 2026. Her decision to retire now opens two seats on the bench in 2021, along with Associate Judge Eugene Fahey, who will be forced into mandatory retirement on December 31, 2021. With Judge Stein’s upcoming retirement, the Court will lose a distinguished jurist who often found herself as the deciding vote in split cases, and Governor Andrew Cuomo will have yet another chance to appoint a new Judge to our state’s highest bench (this will be his ninth appointment to the seven-member bench). With all of this change ahead, 2021 is sure to be another exciting year at the Court of Appeals.

Associate Judge Leslie Stein Announces Her Retirement Effective June 4, 2021

In a very surprising announcement, somewhat buried in the late afternoon on the day before election day 2020, Associate Judge Leslie Stein announced that she would be retiring from the Court of Appeals bench effective June 4, 2021. Judge Stein, who joined the Court on February 9, 2015, wasn’t slated to reach New York’s mandatory retirement age of 70 until 2026. Her retirement 5 years early opens 2 seats on the Court’s bench in 2021, with Associate Judge Eugene Fahey also leaving the bench at the end of the year, forced into mandatory retirement on December 31, 2021.

There will be a lot of time between now and June 4, 2021 to reflect on Judge Stein’s legacy on the Court (and I surely plan to), but for now the fun begins with speculation about who is likely to take Judge Stein’s seat following her retirement. The likely list is long, so let’s take a look at some of the top candidates. Let me be clear, this is pure speculation. I have absolutely no knowledge about who Governor Cuomo is likely to pick or even what characteristics he will look for in a new Court of Appeals judge. But let’s guess anyway just for fun.

First, a refresher on the appointment process. As provided under Judiciary Law s 68 (2), when a vacancy on the Court of Appeals occurs other than because of the expiration of the retiring Judge’s term, the Clerk of the Court must immediately notify the Commission on Judicial Nomination, which then has 120 days to solicit applicants, investigate their qualifications, and recommend a list of up to 7 people for the Governor’s consideration. Once the Governor receives the list, he must appoint someone from the list to Court no sooner than 15 days and no longer 30 days after that, subject of course to New York State Senate confirmation. Once confirmed, the judge can then join the bench as soon as later that afternoon.

The Repeat Nomination Candidates

What’s remarkable about appointments to the Court of Appeals is that judges often have to make the nomination list a number of times before they are actually selected by the Governor. For example, Associate Judge Howard Levine was appointed to the Court in 1993 in his seventh appearance on the nomination list. More recently, it took Judge Rowan Wilson six times on the list before the Governor selected him to replace retiring Associate Judge Eugene Pigott. Judge Michael Garcia, on the other hand, made it on the Court in only his second time on the list.

Looking at the prior nomination lists is a good place to start when trying to predict who might be nominated to replace Judge Stein.

1. Hon. Erin Peradotto, Associate Justice, Appellate Division, Fourth Department

Justice Peradotto has been named on the Commission of Judicial Nomination’s list to be nominated to the Court of Appeals three times in the past, in 2014, 2015, and most recently in 2016 when Judge Wilson was selected to replace Judge Shelia Abdus-Salaam. Justice Peradotto has served on the Appellate Division, Fourth Department since 2006, and is widely recognized for her work and service to the bench and bar. Most recently, Justice Peradotto was selected for the Erie County Bar Association’s Outstanding Jurist Award, and serves on the Chief Judge’s Working Group on the Future of the Bar Exam, among many other committees.

2. Caitlin Halligan, former Solicitor General of the State of New York

Ms. Halligan has also previously appeared on the nomination list three times. She served as New York’s Solicitor General from 2001 to 2007, and then, after a brief return to private practice, as General Counsel for the New York County District Attorney’s Office. She was also once nominated by President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, but she never received a confirmation vote in the U.S. Senate and she ultimate requested that her nomination be withdrawn. Ms. Halligan is now back in private practice, leading the appellate group at Selendy and Gay in Manhattan, and she is also currently serving on the Chief Judge’s Working Group on the Future of the Bar Exam.

The Other Possible Contenders

Governor Cuomo has shown that he has often likes to make “first in history” court appointments. In 2017, he nominated Judge Paul Feinman, who is the Court’s first openly gay Judge. Before Judge Feinman, Governor Cuomo nominated Judge Shelia Abdus-Salaam, the Court’s first African American woman to serve on the bench. This opportunity to further increase the Court’s diversity will not be lost on the Governor. Indeed, as one commentator noted on Twitter last night, the Court has not yet had an Asian American Judge:

And there is a very good candidate currently serving on the First Department.

3. Hon. Jeffrey Oing, Associate Justice, Appellate Division, First Department

Justice Oing has served on the First Department since 2017, was the first Asian American judge appointed to New York County’s Commercial Division, and served on the trial bench for 14 years before his elevation to the Appellate Division. Justice Oing also served as Deputy General Counsel for New York City, handing matters involving the City Council, and has been roundly recognized as an excellent jurist.

We will learn a lot about the upcoming nomination in the next few months, but I for one wouldn’t be surprised to see one of these three to be the pick.

Court System Budget Cuts Force Appellate Division Justices Off the Bench

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, the state had a huge budget deficit to overcome. With the pandemic decreasing state revenues even further, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced a planned $300 million reduction to the New York court system’s budget. That’s a very large cut, and the courts did not have a choice but to take some drastic cost cutting measures in response.

Unfortunately, one of the measures that Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks and the courts chose to make up for the 10% budget reduction was to deny 46 judges recertification to the bench after they reached the state’s mandatory retirement age of 70.

Under Judiciary Law 114 and 115, judges of the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court (including both the Appellate Division and the trial bench) may apply to be recertified to the Supreme Court bench after they retire for up to 3 terms of 2 years each. So, a judge who reaches the age of 70 may continue to serve either on the Appellate Division or the trial bench after their mandatory retirement until they reach the age of 76, if the court system finds that they “has the mental and physical capacity to perform the duties of such office and (b) that [their] services are necessary to expedite the business of the supreme court” (Judiciary Law 114 [1]; id. 115 [1]).

Recertification of retired judges is fairly routine. For example, once Court of Appeals Associate Judge Eugene Pigott reached mandatory retirement age and was forced off the Court of Appeals bench, he applied for and was granted recertification as a trial court judge in Erie County. Although routine, recertification is not guaranteed, however. The decision lies in the discretion of the Administrative Board of the Courts.

To make up part of the $300 million budget cut that Governor Cuomo has forced on the court system, Judge Marks announced that 46 judges would not be certified to the bench for terms beginning January 1, 2021, including 7 Justices of the Appellate Division. The First Department will be losing 2 Justices (David Friedman and Ellen Gesmer). The Second Department will lose 4 (Jeffrey Cohen, John Leventhal, Joseph Maltese, and Sheri Roman). And Justice Eugene Devine will leave the Third Department.

Only 3 judges were granted recertification notwithstanding the budget cuts: (1) Appellate Division, First Department Administrative Judge Angela Mazzarelli, who serves on “a number of task forces and commissions such as the State Commission on Judicial Conduct,” according to the court system spokesperson; (2) Appellate Term, First Department Justice Carol Edmead; and (3) Appellate Term, Second Department Administrative Judge Jerry Garguilo.

The budget cuts will certainly take a toll on the court system, but especially the Appellate Division, Second Department, which is already trying to reduce its large backlog of pending undecided appeals, and now loses 4 Justices from the court. Although this was likely unavoidable due to the unprecedented circumstances that the state and court system now face, it’s still troubling if it only further delays the resolution of pending appeals. For as they say, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

New York Daily Fantasy Sports Suit: Will New Legislation Moot the Constitutional Challenge to DFS?

After the Third Department declared that DFS violates the New York Constitution’s ban on gambling, the thought was that the industry’s only savior would be the seven Judges of the New York Court of Appeals. But now there may be another way.

Yesterday, Senator Joseph Addabo introduced a new bill that could provide a way around the Third Department’s holding that DFS is prohibited gambling and effectively moot the case before the Court of Appeals. A quick refresher: The New York Constitution bans “gambling,” but doesn’t define the term. The Third Department held that the Penal Law definition of what is prohibited gambling governs the extent of the constitutional ban. That is, the Constitution prohibits any games the outcome of which depend upon chance in a material degree, notwithstanding that they may also involve the players’ skill.

Here’s the way around. In addition to providing a new severability clause for the Interactive Fantasy Sports Law, the new proposed legislation would redefine the scope of gambling under the New York Penal Law to exclude daily fantasy sports.

By amending the Penal Law definition of gambling, the new proposed legislation would play right into the Third Department’s holding. If the scope of “gambling” under the Constitution is governed by the Penal Law, as the Third Department held, changing the Penal Law, as the Legislature has the power to do, would fix the constitutional problem (assuming you think there is one—I don’t).

Thus, if the bill is passed and signed into law before the Court of Appeals decides the appeal, it would effectively moot the constitutional challenge because the Court would have to apply the law as it stood at the time of its decision. Now, the Court would still have to agree with the Third Department’s determination that the scope of “gambling” under the Constitution is the same as the Penal Law definition, but that seems likely, given that the Penal Law definition was adopted in the first instance to implement the constitutional ban after it was adopted.

This is a very interesting development, and could have a huge impact on the appeal before the Court of Appeals. It’s definitely something to watch.

COVID-19 Update: New York Court of Appeals and Third and Fourth Departments are Going Virtual Too!

Following the First and Second Department’s forays into virtual Skype arguments, the Court of Appeals announced yesterday that it would be hearing arguments virtually during its June session.

COA NTB 4.23.20

Although some attorneys whose appeals had been scheduled for the March or April/May session won’t get the chance to argue, because the Court will be taking a few previously calendared cases on submission (including an interesting—to me, at least—issue about whether a municipal defendant can exclude one of multiple claimants from a statutorily required pre-suit deposition), most cases from those sessions will be rescheduled for argument later. And the Court has chosen a limited number of cases for the first virtual argument session in the Court’s history in June. The arguments will be livestreamed, as always, so we’ll all get to see what the Judges’ homes or chambers look like (unless of course they’ve figured out how to work virtual backgrounds).

The Third and Fourth Department Expand Virtual Court Operations Too

Not to be left out, the Third and Fourth Department are also following the First and Second Departments’ lead into virtual arguments.  Last Friday, the Fourth Department announced that it was not only going to be scheduling special virtual argument sessions for May and June and holding Skype arguments, but that it was also rescinding its prior order that had suspended appeal perfection and briefing deadlines.  In its place, the Fourth Department set a new schedule for the appeals:

Fourth Department Deadlines

The Third Department too is scheduling special virtual argument sessions for May and June. But, unlike the Fourth Department, the Third Department is continuing its suspension of perfection and briefing deadlines, at least for now.  That may change as we finish up the virtual argument sessions, and the Court sees how well they can work.

Now the Court of Appeals and all four departments of the Appellate Division are hearing arguments virtually, and the work of our appellate courts can continue, even in these times where we’re all working from home.

 

 

COVID-19 Update: Arguments are Back in the First and Second Departments!

Although most New York courts remain limited to hearing designated essential matters, or deciding their already fully submitted motions, the Appellate Division, First and Second Departments are expanding virtual operations for all of their appeals. For appellate lawyers like me, that’s very good news.

Earlier today (April 15th), the First Department released an update advising the bar that it has created two new special argument terms during which appeals will either be submitted on the papers or argued via Skype: (1) the May Special Term, beginning May 4th and ending May 29th, and (2) the June Special Term, beginning June 1st and ending June 26th.

Most notably, the First Department announces that it will allow parties to agree to perfect appeals and e-file motions in non-essential matters, even while the deadlines to do so remain suspended. That means that you can file that long looked-over brief that was ready to be filed a few weeks ago, if the other side agrees.  But again, opposing counsel will have no obligation to respond because the deadlines are still suspended until the Court orders otherwise.

In the Second Department, the Court will continue hearing appellate arguments via Skype, if the parties request to be heard. The first round of virtual arguments in late March and early April went off without a hitch, the Court says, and so the next round of arguments are being scheduled for April 27th through May 8th.

Second Department Skype Argument

Although the Third and Fourth Departments remain on the virtual sidelines for now, here’s hoping they’ll embrace the example set by their downstate brethren soon, so we can all get back to arguing, from a safe virtual distance of course!

Are Women Getting a Better Chance to Argue in State Appellate Courts? A Deeper Look at the Numbers Reveals a Troubling Trend in New York

A little less than three years ago, following the in depth look that Adam Feldman took at how infrequently women were getting the chance to argue at the Supreme Court, I took a look at how they were faring at the New York Court of Appeals. Examining the data from the 2016 arguments before the Court, I found that women argued approximately 37% of the time in all of the Court’s argued cases (136 arguments by women attorneys out of 372 opportunities total).

2016 Women Argument Pie Chart

That’s a pretty good rate compared to women’s opportunities to argue at the Supreme Court from 2012 to 2016, which according to Adam’s piece, amounted to 17% to 18% of the total arguments.  But, the total 2016 argument rate of 37% at the New York Court of Appeals masked an underlying divide between criminal cases where women argued nearly half of the time (89 of 188 criminal arguments, for 47%), and civil cases where women argued only 26% of the time (47 out of 184 civil arguments).

Is 2016 truly representative of the chances that women get to argue at the New York Court of Appeals, though? That’s the question that has nagged at me since I first put together the 2016 data.  So I dug a little deeper to find out. I looked at the argument data from 2012 and then from 2019 to see if things were materially different. They were, and not in a good way.

2012 Argument Data Shows a Lower Rate of Women Arguments

2012 Women Total Pie Chart2012 Women Total Bar Chart

If 2016 seemed to provide better opportunities for women to argue at the Court of Appeals than at the Supreme Court, 2012 was worse than 2016. During the 2012 calendar year, there were a total of 420 arguments before the Court of Appeals, but only 120 went to women.  That’s 29%.  There were only 18 cases where women argued on both sides, while their male counterparts did so 98 times. And like in 2016, 2012 also had a big disparity between criminal arguments and civil arguments. Women argued at the Court of Appeals 43% of the time in criminal cases (72 out of 167 available criminal arguments), but only 19% of the time in civil cases (48 out of 253 available civil arguments).

2012 Women Criminal Args2012 Women Civil Args

2019 Argument Data Shows Women Arguing at a Similar Rate to 2012, But With Far Fewer Total Arguments

2019 Women Total Pie Chart2019 Women Total Bar Chart

In 2019, the Court of Appeals heard 168 total arguments, 50 of which were women. That’s a total rate of 30%. Again, cases argued by men on both sides far outpaced cases argued by women on both sides (43 to 10). And the criminal to civil argument divide was still present. Women argued in 44% of criminal cases (31 criminal arguments out of 71 total), but only 20% of civil cases (19 civil arguments out of 97 total).

2019 Women Criminal Args2019 Women Civil Args

The 2012, 2016, and 2019 Argument Data Compared Shows a Significant Issue with the Court of Appeals Taking Fewer Cases

Although the rate of women arguing at the Court of Appeals in 2019 (30%) stayed pretty much the same as in 2012 (29%) and is close to the higher rate of 37% in 2016, the larger issue is that the Court is taking fewer cases and hearing fewer arguments now, which means that there are far fewer arguments that women and other underrepresented groups of advocates could take in the first place.

Comparison Chart

In 2019, the Court of Appeals only had 168 total available argument spots. That’s down 60% from the 420 total available arguments in 2012, and also way down from the 372 total available arguments in 2016. That’s a huge issue.  As can been seen in the table, the total arguments that went to women have declined over the years, from 120 in 2012 to 50 in 2019.

So, although the 32% of arguments being made by women over the three years I looked at is better than has been seen at the Supreme Court, the declining total number of arguments is a large barrier to getting more arguments for women and other underrepresented groups in the legal profession. That’s especially so in civil cases, where the total rate of women arguments before the Court of Appeals over those three years is only a meager 21% (114 civil arguments by women out of 534 total), and there were only 97 total available civil arguments in 2019, down from 253 in 2012 and 184 in 2016.

Beyond the Court of Appeals granting leave to appeal in more cases (which I’m in favor of), I think it would go a long way for Chief Judge DiFiore and the Court to adopt a policy encouraging arguments by women and other underrepresented advocates in the State’s highest court.  Policies like this, which have been adopted by many Judges throughout the state and in the federal courts, can go a long way to set the tone for the legal profession. I think it’s time for the Court of Appeals, on which sits a majority of distinguished women Judges, to lead by example.

COVID-19: New York Courts Take Unprecedented Action to Limit In-Person Appearances

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures. And we’re certainly in unprecedented times.  With the spread of COVID-19 growing exponentially each day, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, and the entire courts system have decided to take unprecedented action to limit in-court proceedings to only those essential for the administration of justice.  All non-essential proceedings are suspended until further order, and that now includes the filing of all litigation papers, under an order issued by Chief Administrative Judge Marks on March 22nd. While lawyers may keep working on their litigation matters, the courts will not be accepting any filings, except for those in enumerated essential proceedings.

Here’s a quick summary of the measures that the New York courts have adopted to try to do its part to keep its employees and the litigants that normally appear before it each day safe (UPDATED as of March 23, 2020):

The Appellate Division

For the first time that I can recall, the Appellate Division has suspended oral arguments. Each Department is handling it differently. In the First Department, the Court has cancelled all arguments scheduled for March 17, 18, and 19 and is taking those cases on submission. Beginning with the April term, and until the Court orders otherwise, all appeals will be submitted on the briefs or by oral argument through Skype. The Second Department is also taking its appeals on submission, unless the parties request to argue via Skype.

In the Third Department, the Court has strongly encouraged all attorneys who are scheduled to argue during the March term, which runs from March 23rd to 27th, to submit their appeals on the briefs. If argument is required, the Court is rescheduling the arguments for a later date. And in the Fourth Department, the Court has decided to take all arguments scheduled for the March/April term on submission only, without oral argument. Arguments for the May 2020 term will be rescheduled.

All of the Appellate Division Departments have now also issued orders suspending all non-statutory perfection and filing deadlines for the foreseeable future. In the First Department, for example, all deadlines are suspended, except for those cases that have been perfected for the May or June 2020 terms. All other Departments have suspended all deadlines for all cases (the Second Department, Third Department, and Fourth Department orders are here).

To be clear, and to avoid a trap for the unwary, the Appellate Division’s orders did not suspend the statutory deadlines for filing a notice of appeal or a motion for leave to appeal. Those deadlines were not been extended, in the first instance. But Governor Cuomo later issued an executive order tolling all statutory deadlines until April 19th, which includes the service of notices of appeal or motions for leave to appeal. The executive order provides:

In accordance with the directive of the Chief Judge of the State to limit court operations to essential matters during the pendency of the COVID-19 health crisis,   any specific time limit for the commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding, as prescribed by the procedural laws of the state, including but not limited to the criminal procedure law, the family court act, the civil practice law and rules, the court of claims act, the surrogate’s court procedure act, and the uniform court acts, or by any other statute, local law, ordinance, order, rule, or regulation, or part thereof, is hereby tolled from the date of this executive order until April 19, 2020.

That fills the gap that had been left by the Appellate Division’s deadline suspension order, and ensures that all deadlines have now been suspended for the duration of this order. Although this executive order only tolls deadlines until April 19th, I would fully expect the Governor to extend this order further if the State’s COVID-19 response is still in full effect as we approach that date.

The Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals at first decided to proceed with the oral arguments scheduled for its March session, which has argument dates on March 17th, 18th, 24th, and 25th. The Court advised counsel, however, that if they are unable to make it due to the public health crisis, the Court was willing to accommodate argument by videoconference.

As the Court began its first arguments in the March session, it was a remarkable sight to see the Judges observing social distancing by moving Chief Judge DiFiore, Judge Rivera, and Judge Stein from their normal positions on the bench to the advocates’ tables in front of the bench, while the remaining Judges spread out along the bench behind them. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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And behind the advocates was an eerily empty courtroom that echoed with each argument.

After holding arguments for the first day of session, the Court of Appeals has now decided to suspend the remainder of its argument calendar for March 18th, 24th, and 25th, and will reschedule those appeals for a later date. The Court will also no longer accept any filings, including stay applications, in person at the Clerk’s Office.

The Trial Courts

In the New York trial courts, only pending criminal or civil trials may continue. Any trials that have not yet begun will be adjourned pending further order. Further, as of March 16th, all evictions and eviction proceedings are suspended until further notice. All other matters are limited to those that the courts have deemed essential.  No other court appearances will be held to try to ensure the safety of court staff and the parties.

These are certainly trying and uncertain times. The New York courts are trying to do their part to ensure that essential judicial services can still be provided, while ensuring the safety of court employees and the public alike. For updated information about court closures or other steps the courts have taken, the New York State Bar Association has put together a site that is being updated daily with new information, which can be found here. Stay safe everyone.

 

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.

Bring Your Lunch to the Court of Appeals: A Conversation with Judge Leslie Stein

It’s not often that you get the chance to have lunch with a sitting judge of your state’s high court, much less in a group of just four other people. Lucky for me, that’s the kind of quality programming that the Albany County Bar Association provides. Last time, it was lunch with Justice Michael Lynch of the Appellate Division, Third Department. This time, the ACBA’s Brown Bag Lunch program brought me to the Court of Appeals for lunch with Associate Judge Leslie Stein. As always, it was a fantastic program. Here are just a few highlights of what we talked about.

Differences Between the Trial Bench, the Appellate Division, and the Court of Appeals

Judge Stein’s career on the bench has run the gamut. She began in the Civil Part of City Court, was then elected to Supreme Court, elevated to the Appellate Division shortly after that, and was appointed to the Court of Appeals three years ago. So what’s the biggest differences between her stops?

Besides the general complexity of the cases before her, which of course increased as she rose to the Appellate Division and now on the Court of Appeals, Judge Stein explained that the biggest difference between sitting in City Court and the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeals is learning how to make a collaborative decision on the cases you hear. While at City Court or Supreme Court, Judge Stein was the sole person responsible for the decisions in the cases she heard. She got to review the law, the facts, and decide the outcome that she thought was right every time.

Once she was elevated to the Appellate Division and especially now on the Court of Appeals, the decision-making process became much more collaborative. After oral argument, Judge Stein explained that all the judges on the case sit down at conference to discuss the issues and a possible result. In that discussion, the Judges have to convince each other of the right outcome, and no one Judge’s perspective can control.  You need at least 3 votes at the Appellate Division and 4 at the Court of Appeals to issue a decision, after all. There is much more give and take, and compromise about what the Judges are willing to agree to. That process, Judge Stein said, often leads to much narrower opinions on the relevant issues to get the agreement that the Court needs to decide a case.

The Use of Oral Argument Questions and Separate Opinions to Develop the Law

But when the Judges can’t all agree on a particular issue, Judge Stein said that questions at oral argument and writing separate opinions are often useful to help push the Court to reach agreement. In fact, oftentimes, the Judges go into oral argument with a few questions that are designed more to persuade their colleagues on an issue than they are to elicit a response from the advocates. And the Judges each have a good sense of which questions are which. The Judges have their own unique styles of questioning, Judge Stein told us, and when the questions are being used to persuade their colleagues on the Court, it’s pretty easy to see.

Judge Stein offered some important advice for advocates who argue before the Court. The Judges all know that you’re wrapped up in the particular facts and issues in your client’s case, but you have to be ready to answer the bigger question: “What rule would you have this Court adopt?” The Court wants to know where the line should be drawn not only for the particular case in front of it, but for all cases throughout the State. It’s sometimes surprising, she said, that attorneys come to argument unready to answer that question. Don’t let that be you (especially because if you’ve watched the Court’s arguments, the question about what the rule is comes up in almost every single one).

Judge Stein also told us that separate opinions can have the same persuasive purpose. About one week before the start of the argument session, each Judge is assigned to write an opinion on a case that will be argued at that term (this is a change from the Court’s prior practice where the Judges randomly were assigned writings at the conference immediately after oral argument concluded).  Thus, Judge Stein explained, when the Judges leave the bench after oral argument at the Court of Appeals, they know which cases they’ll be writing an opinion in, but not necessary whether that opinion will be for the majority or the dissent. After argument, the Judges head to conference, discuss the issues in each case, with the least senior Judge (now, Judge Feinman) beginning, and hold an initial vote on the case. If the Judge that has been assigned the writing has the majority, then he or she will write the majority opinion, and the dissent is assigned to the next least senior Judge who disagrees.

Many times, however, Judge Stein explained, the Judges who are writing the dissent write opinions that never leave the internal chambers of the Court. They are offered to persuade the majority to narrow its opinion as a part of the give and take process. The draft dissenting opinions are used for points of discussion among the Judges to see if they can reach a compromise on the issues. Many times, it works, the Judges agree to sign on to the majority, and the draft dissent is scrapped, having served its purpose.

But when it doesn’t, the dissent becomes part of the Court’s opinion, offering the bench and bar a different critique of the issues in the case. Judge Stein told us that dissents can also be valuable to signal when a Judge feels that the law should be changed, as Judge Rivera recently did in calling for a reexamination of the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule in People v Cummings or Judge Wilson did in calling for the Court to interpret its jurisdiction to include the ability to dismiss an appeal as improvidently granted.

Concurring opinions can be used the same way, Judge Stein noted. When a Judge agrees in principle with the Court’s proposed result, but would use different reasoning to get there, he or she will use a concurrence to explain the difference. Or, as Judge Fahey did recently, to explain that the issues in the case are important and should be decided, but that this particular case is not the right one in which to reach them, and to signal to the bar to bring these issues to the Court in another case.  Much of what the Court does, Judge Stein said, is about the development of the law, and not necessarily just for the case in front of it.

The Process of Hiring Clerks

No discussion of the inner workings of the Court of Appeals would be complete without touching on the subject of those attorneys who help the Judges do their jobs. All of the Judges on the Court have different policies on who they will hire for clerks, what kinds of experience they’re looking for, whether they want permanent or rotating clerks, and whether they’re willing to hire clerks straight out of law school.

Although some Judges on the Court have exclusively rotating clerks for 2-year terms in order to get a fresh perspective in chambers, Judge Stein has traditionally had permanent law clerks, people she has grown to know well and who know her intellectual tendencies. That, she thinks, has worked very well for her over the years. But, just recently, Judge Stein hired a new clerk on a 2-year term commitment. So, she’s willing to reevaluate her stance and her new clerk, she said, is working out very well.

When we asked what she looks for in a potential clerk, she said that it’s important for the applicant to have at least 2-3 years of experience representing clients of some sort. That perspective is important to sort through the arguments that the attorneys in each case bring to the Court. The practical experience helps Judge Stein sort through the practical impact of the cases that the Court is deciding, which is always a consideration when the Court decides cases that affect the law statewide.

Judge Stein also looks for strong writers, of course, but importantly also someone who is willing to stand up to her and tell her when the clerk thinks she is wrong on the law. It’s ultimately the Judge’s call where her opinion comes out in a case, but the process of reaching that decision is strengthened when the clerks provide a strong point of view and don’t just agree with Judge Stein’s initial reaction.

Best of all, as we finished up lunch with Judge Stein, she offered to take us on a private tour of the Court, to see the detailed hand-carved woodworking throughout the courtroom, sit in the Judges’ chairs and look at the still existing spittoon underneath the bench, tour the robing room where the Judges get ready for argument before they enter the courtroom, see the two-story conference room and the “Cardozo” room where the decisions get made, and last but certainly not least, the Judges’ chambers on the second floor.

Not bad for a brown bag lunch. Not bad at all.  It was, in fact, as fantastic program, and many thanks are owed to the Albany County Bar Association for continuing to put this great programming on for its members and to Judge Stein for taking the time out of her busy schedule between sessions to host us.

 

 

 

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