Housing court could get a lot more political under reform plan

Attorneys offered varying opinions on what type of impact it would have

The Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in Lower Manhattan (Credit: iStock)
The Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in Lower Manhattan (Credit: iStock)

The city’s housing court judges could become political appointees under a proposal to dramatically rework the state’s judicial system.

Housing court judges today are appointed by a judicial advisory council. But under a plan examined at a state legislative hearing Wednesday, the mayor’s office could be making those appointments.

That’s concerning to some, considering the hostile political climate for landlords and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pro-tenant history.

“This mayor has been notoriously, blatantly anti-owner,” said Mitch Posilkin, general counsel for the Rent Stabilization Association. “He has been notoriously and blatantly in favor of rent freezes.”

Posilkin called it “a miscarriage of justice for this type of mayor to have any sort of input with regard to housing court.”

While the proposal is still years away from actually taking effect, and de Blasio’s tenure cannot stretch past 2021, attorneys agreed that New York City Housing Court could see some significant changes.

The plan, proposed by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, would consolidate the 11 different trial courts of New York’s court system into two parts. One would be a new Supreme Court encompassing the current Supreme Court, County Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court and Court of Claims. The second part would be a new Municipal Court consisting of the Long Island district courts, the New York City Criminal and Civil Courts and the city courts outside of the five boroughs.

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Judges in New York City Housing Court would become Municipal Court judges under the new plan. This change would take effect on Jan. 1, 2027, when the plan would abolish the New York City Civil and Criminal Courts.

Once this shift takes place, judges would finish serving their terms in housing court, after which the mayor would make appointments for 10-year terms from a list put together by an advisory council. Housing Court judges currently serve five years.

One attorney speaking on background who frequently works with tenants in housing court said he was concerned that consolidating the court system would lead to judges who are not well-versed on housing issues.

“Housing court is supposed to be a court of limited jurisdiction. It was especially created to deal with housing,” he said. “So I guess that could be a concern.”

Having an advisory council recommend judges would not guarantee that politics would be removed from the process. Past reform efforts have implemented review panels to keep Democratic and Republican county organizations from hand-picking jurists, but one source told The Real Deal, “I was on the screening panel for Supreme Court judges and if we disagreed with who the party leaders chose, we were asked to revise our vote.”

Former City Council member Kenneth Fisher, a partner at the law firm Cozen O’Connor who works frequently with landlords, said he did not think the plan would change housing court much on a substantive level. It would give the courts more flexibility to allocate their resources, but not actually give them more resources, which they desperately need, he said.

“It’s not entirely clear to me what this would do at the housing court level except give the administrative judges more flexibility to surge judges into a particular county if they had a backlog that they were going to tackle,” he said.

“It certainly doesn’t address the terrible working conditions that they’re under,” he continued, “so I think if it happens at all, it probably will have some small beneficial effect in being able to deploy judges where they’re needed. But without the other components, it’s not going to change the pressure cooker that all of the housing court parts are.”