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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Courts of New York Explained


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The Judges Game
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A System in Need of Reform
Patronage, payoffs, complexity, and appointments vs. elections in the New York judiciary.

It's been called a mosaic, a jigsaw puzzle, a bureaucracy and a mess. There are many plans afoot to reorganize the courts of New York, all facing political battles that may be all but insurmountable. Meantime, exactly what the court structure is eludes most New Yorkers and even many reporters who cover the courts.

All New York courts are part of the New York State Unified Court System, but because of its large population and volume of cases, New York City also has local courts. Each of the five boroughs, in other words, has both city and state courts. The city courts are Civil Court and Criminal Court. The state courts are Supreme Court, Family Court and Surrogate's Court. All five boroughs (which are also counties) have all of these courts.

But this is too simple, because there is also something called the New York State Court of Claims, and of course the entire Federal judiciary, which is separate.


The Civil Court hears private, non-criminal lawsuits which have a monetary value of no more than $25,000. Under the Civil Court umbrella are also Housing Court and Small Claims Court. Housing Court was created three decades ago to hear nothing but landlord-tenant proceedings involving non-payment of rent, breach of tenancy, housing conditions. Small Claims court hears monetary disputes involving up to $3,000.


The Criminal Court is the first judicial stop for all arrested persons. This is where the charges are read to the accused (though this is theoretical, because they are almost never actually read), and bail is set or the defendant is Released on (his or her) Own Recognizance, or, in court parlance, ROR'd. What happens then depends on whether the charge is a violation, a misdemeanor or a felony.

A violation, the least severe charge, can be something like disorderly conduct. A misdemeanor might be shoplifting, possession of stolen property (nothing too valuable), very small amounts of drugs, or simple assault. If the charge is a violation or a misdemeanor, a plea is entered: Guilty or not Guilty. If the defendant pleads guilty, the judge can impose the sentence right then and there. If the defendant pleads not guilty, Criminal Court hearings and a trial will be scheduled.

If, however, the charge is a felony, such as murder, arson, robbery, burglary, most weapons possession charges, and most drug charges, no plea is entered. If it's a narcotics case it might be steered to a hybrid narcotics "part" (jargon for courtroom) for disposition without presentation to a grand jury. Almost all other felonies, however, will be presented to a grand jury, a jury empanelled specifically to hear a brief presentation of evidence and vote on whether or not to indict. (A grand jury differs from a regular jury, because a grand jury must weigh whether there is sufficient evidence to determine that a crime has been committed at all, and sufficient evidence to charge this particular person, while a trial jury must determine whether evidence has been established beyond a reasonable doubt to convict this person of this crime.) In most cases there is an indictment, and People versus John Doe becomes a Supreme Court case.


In Supreme Court the accused will be re-arraigned, new bail will be set and a plea entered. There are then further proceedings, including hearings, "plea bargaining" (a reduced charge in exchange for a guilty plea) or a trial. If there's a conviction or guilty plea, the judge will impose a sentence.

All of this is done in the Criminal Division of Supreme Court. Supreme Court also has a Civil Division. The civil actions and proceedings cover any monetary dispute over $25,000, be it commercial, personal injury, libel, employment, civil rights, or a real estate matter, and often involves a great deal of money. It's also the place to go if you're looking for an injunction, restraining order, documents under the Freedom of Information Law. Supreme Court is the only court that can grant divorces.

The Supreme Court of New York is not what it is in most other states or in the federal judiciary, i.e., the highest court. It's simply the statewide trial court of general jurisdiction.


Though Family Court cannot hear divorce cases, its jurisdiction sometimes overlaps with other courts, both criminal and civil. Family Court judges can hear matters involving child support, foster care, delinquency, family violence, adoption.


Surrogate's Court has exclusive jurisdiction over wills and estates. Like Family Court, it also considers adoptions.


The Court of Claims has traditionally heard monetary claims against the State of New York. In recent years, however, a large number of additional Court of Claims judgeships have been created to handle the huge increase in drug-related felonies. Appointed by the governor for a term of nine years, these judges are assigned to Supreme Court, usually designated Acting Supreme Court justices, and then have nothing to do with the Court of Claims itself.


Verdicts, decisions, judgments and orders of all of these trial courts can be appealed to higher courts. Appellate Term judges hear appeals from the lower, city courts -- Civil (including Housing and Small Claims) and Criminal Court. Appellate Division judges hear appeals from Supreme Court (Civil or Criminal), Surrogate's Court, and Family Court.

There are two Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court in New York City. One is on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and covers New York County and the Bronx. The other is in Brooklyn Heights and covers the three other boroughs (and Westchester and Rockland counties) Both are architectural gems.

Beyond that there's the New York Court of Appeals in Albany, which is the real supreme court of New York, hearing appeals from decisions of the Appellate Division.


New York City judges can be elected or appointed, depending on the court. Civil Court judges, who must live in New York City, are elected either countywide or from a particular judicial district within a county, a throwback to a now non-existent municipal court system. (Now, regardless of which district elected them, all Civil Court judges hear cases from within the entire county in which they are sitting). They are elected for a ten year term. . But Civil Court judges do not necessarily preside over Civil Court alone. They can also be assigned to Criminal Court, occasionally Family Court, or as acting Justices of the Supreme Court, (Criminal or Civil). Though Housing Court is part of Civil Court, Housing Court judges, unlike Civil Court judges, are not elected. The state's Chief Administrative Judge, Jonathan Lippman, appoints them for five-year terms.

Criminal Court judges, as city judges, must also live in the city; the Mayor appoints them for ten-year terms. They can also be designated as Acting Supreme Court Justices (usually in the Criminal Division).

A Supreme Court justice -- the only judge who is actually called Justice -- is elected by the voters in the county but must first be nominated by a political party. The procedures and politics for getting to that point differ from county to county. A Supreme Court Justice must live in New York State, and is elected for a term of 14 years.

Every judge wants to be one of the Supremes, sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of the State of New York.

The Supreme Court justices are the pool from which appointments to the higher Appellate Term and the Appellate Division are made. But the members of the New York State Court Of Appeals, the highest court, do not have to have served as judges in any court. When former Governor Mario Cuomo appointed the current Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, Judith S. Kaye, she had been an attorney in private practice.

There can be no simple guide to New York's courts. As complicated as this basic structure seems, there are so many exceptions to the rules and procedures that it is actually even more complicated.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice


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