The Court of Appeals (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul)
Courts are much in the news these days. The Supreme Court’s recent rulings on abortion, gun control, and other issues have stirred controversy. Here in New York, the lengthy process of the governor nominating and the Senate approving a new Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals has raised public interest in the Court’s role. People are reminded that the courts, particularly the state’s and nation’s highest courts, are the final arbiters of crucial public policy issues. Their decisions have far-reaching consequences for our lives.
That highlights the importance of the New York Court of Appeals. The state’s highest court is the forum of last resort in deciding social, economic, political, and constitutional issues that are essential to New Yorkers. Even more, since its creation in 1846, the Court of Appeals has arguably been the most important state court in the nation, the one that the highest courts in other states, and sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court, look to for insight. The high court’s status and prestige was so high that one of its Chief Judges, Alton B. Parker, was nominated for president of the United States by the Democratic Party in 1904 (he lost to Theodore Roosevelt).
The Court of Appeals’ role is further underlined by the fact that, during most of our history, the key social, economic, political, and constitutional issues were settled at the state level. Litigation in the federal court system, commonplace today, was in the past more limited. Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court were more rare than today.
Why does the New York Court of Appeals matter so much?
The Court of Appeals is sometimes seen as something of a buffer and a bulwark of liberties.
“It is vital that we restore the court to its position of national pre-eminence and ensure that the public is confident in the court’s integrity,” said Associate Judge Rowan Wilson in his Senate confirmation hearing to be Chief Judge (he was soon confirmed). “The court’s role and legitimacy is particularly important now, in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s retreat from several of its seminal decisions.”
“State courts are where the issues that are most important to the day-to-day lives of New Yorkers get addressed,” said Caitlin J. Halligan in her Senate hearing to be confirmed as a new Associate Judge of the court, succeeding Rowan Wilson (she was soon confirmed). “It is where the scope of the New York constitution gets hammered out, a task that is especially important at a moment when federal courts appear to be pulling back on some key constitutional protections.”
Judith Kaye, Chief Judge from 1993 to 2008, wrote that “state court dockets comprise the battlefields of first resort in social revolutions.” They must exercise judicial discernment and judgment. “State courts have openly and explicitly balanced considerations of social welfare and have fashioned new causes and action where common sense justice required.”
The Court of Appeals is a model of judicial deliberation.
The high court considers cases that have already made their way up through the state court system, including the supreme court and appellate division. Extensive evidence is presented and considered in those courts. The Court of Appeals reviews the procedures and decisions in the lower courts to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the law was applied correctly and in line with provisions of the state and U.S. constitutions.
The court has seven members, the Chief Judge and six Associate Judges. Court decisions are collective ones, reached after careful discussion among the judges where conflicting perspectives are aired and alternative outcomes proposed. The Chief Judge presides and may try to persuade his colleagues one way or the other, but the associate judges are independent-minded and the Chief Judge’s influence is limited. Individual judges try out proposed opinions, listen to each other to gain insights, and hold extensive discussions.
Courts are well aware of the importance and consequences of their roles. They expect scrutiny of their decisions. They weigh and balance lots of factors. They recognize the need to explain the basis for the decisions. Sometimes, this results in arbitrary, biased decisions. But usually it results in decisions that are reasonably balanced and carefully explained even if that does not align with various groups’ views of what they think the court should have done.
The Court exercises a high degree of judicial statesmanship.
The Court of Appeals often strikes a judicious balance between two positions. The first is the conservative philosophy of interpreting the constitutions narrowly, focusing on the original meaning of their provisions, and clinging to the precedent of past court decisions – the legal doctrine of “Stare Decisis,” a Latin term that means “let the decision stand.”
The second position is to be more expansive, construing the constitutions more broadly, looking for ways to interpret them in light of contemporary life, thereby keeping them fresh and relevant.
This may sometimes involve articulating “common law,” sometimes called “judge-made law,” defined by the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute as “law that is derived from judicial decisions instead of from statutes.” Courts do this cautiously, basing their decisions on the implications of the constitutions and precedent or analogy to other decisions. Their decisions, in effect, become law.
State legislatures may nullify a decision by passing new legislation to do so. More often, the legislatures take heed of the court’s reasoning and often codify common law rules from the courts of their state, “either to give the rule the permanence afforded by a statute, to modify it somehow (by either expanding or restricting the scope of the common law rule, for example) or to replace the outcome entirely with legislation,” as the Cornell Legal Information Institute explains.
The “judge-made law” role may sometimes put the high court in a somewhat uncomfortable, high-visibility position. As Chief Judge Kaye wrote, “given the enormous volume of state court litigation, the unending array of novel fact patterns pushing the law to progress, and the inability of state legislatures to react immediately to the many changes in society…courts interpreting statutes and filling the gaps have no choice but to ‘make law’ in circumstances where neither the statutory text nor the ‘legislative will’ provides a single, clear answer.”
The Court of Appeals can be expected to continue deciding tough, high-consequence cases. Its new Chief Judge and new Associate Judge may change the Court’s take on constitutional issues somewhat. But it seems likely that the court will continue, and may even expand on, its history as a judicious but proactive court.
Judges in writing their opinions, and courts in issuing their decisions, have as one audience other judges, attorneys, others involved in the cases, legislators, and others. But they also intend their opinions for the media and for the general public. The media of necessity summarize decisions and editorial writers, pundits, and partisans may pick out particular points and put their own interpretation on the decision. But interested members of the public can and should read the decisions for themselves. They are posted on the courts’ websites. Sometimes the decisions may seem laden with legal jargon. But the best ones are clear, distinct, and direct.
Bruce W. Dearstyne is a historian specializing in New York history. In 2022, SUNY Press published the second edition of his book The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History and his newest book The Crucible of Public Policy: New York Courts in the Progressive Era.