Monitors were also influential in the State Office of Court Administration to
introduce a mandatory "civility training" program for all non-judicial court personnel.
On a larger scale, monitors' reports were instrumental in encouraging the State
legislature to pass the Court Facilities Act of 1987, which has led to construction of
desperately needed new court facilities around the State. In the Third Judicial District, for
example, the county converted an old jail facility into a new courthouse for the Rensselaer
County Family Court. The court opened in 1998, replacing a deplorable facility that had
been criticized by monitors in several reports. Other new courthouses are scheduled for
construction over the next several years. Monitors' reports also influenced recent reforms to
make jury service less burdensome.
Overall, citizen court monitoring has improved communication between citizens and
the judiciary, heightened the court system's sensitivity to public needs, and helped to ensure
that those needs are met.
The Capital District Court Monitors
The Capital District Court Monitors observe and report on courts in Albany,
Rensselaer, Saratoga, and Schenectady Counties. In 2001, the Capital District Court
Monitors chose to evaluate the conditions in the Saratoga County Family Court.
The family court deals with some of society's most serious problems, involving
children and families in crisis. However, due to its status as a “lower” court within the
current court system, it has been forced to operate with fewer resources than the state’s so-
called "superior" courts. Moreover, public attention has rarely been focused on the
operation of the family court, since it often functions as a "closed" court (although, in
1997, changes have been instituted to open family court proceedings to the public and
press). Much needed reforms will be instituted only when the public is made aware of the
actual conditions in the Family Court, which is why the Capital District Court monitors
chose to undertake this project.
Monitors also wished to evaluate another aspect of the Family Court’s operations:
a pilot project unifying the family and matrimonial divisions. Under New York’s
antiquated and labyrinthine nine-tier trial court system, in order to obtain a divorce, the
parties may be required to litigate different issues in as many as three separate courts.
While the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over divorces, custody and support issues must
be heard in the Family Court; and in cases, where family offense proceedings are
involved, the parties must also go to County Court. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye has
proposed a constitutional amendment that would create a permanent solution to these
problems by consolidating the court system’s nine tiers into two, and elevating the Family
Court to a division of Supreme Court, thus enabling one judge to preside over all aspects
of such cases. However, this plan has encountered significant political opposition. As an
interim solution, the Judge Kaye and the Office of Court Administration established a
pilot project creating unified family and matrimonial divisions. The Fourth Judicial
District, which includes Saratoga County, was chosen to inaugurate the program.