A commission Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye appointed recommended last week bringing New York divorce laws into line with all other states by allowing so-called "no-fault" ends to marriage. This simply means two people agree to divorce.
In a state where the Catholic Church and trial lawyers have powerful views on the subject, a quick and positive legislative response to this report is unlikely. But one is needed and this change should nonetheless happen, and soon.
The New York City and New York State bar associations support some form of one-step, no-fault divorce. (Erie County's bar association has taken no official position.) Currently, New York couples wanting to divorce must cite one of several odious reasons -- adultery, abandonment or cruel and inhumane treatment -- for a year. (This presumably more deterrent approach doesn't stop them, divorcing as they do at rates above the national average). Also to its credit, the commission called for increased emphasis on mediated divorce, and efforts to move cases more swiftly through the legal system. All would save the state millions of dollars, and couples too.
Erie County at the last census listed 27,302 divorced men, 37,795 divorced women and about 182,000 married people. The same numbers in Niagara County were 7,182 men, 9,154 women and 45,000 married people. Clearly, the institution of marriage remains favored in this region. Making divorce more dignified is not going to suddenly lead to a rush on divorce. Divorce rates nationally actually decreased, from 1991 to 2001, going from .47 per person to .38. In 2002, New York's marriage rate was 7.3 per 1,000 people; its divorce rate was 3.4 per 1,000.
But to hear legislative committee leaders tell it, what's good for residents in 49 other states isn't for New Yorkers. Relevant chairs demur and deconstruct, suggesting a faster process, or arguing more incremental changes should come first.
When a supposedly progressive state like New York can't do for its citizens as Mississippi, Utah, North Carolina and New Hampshire do for theirs, it's time for change. This is one commission report that demands action, not dust collecting.