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Judiciary of New York

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Judiciary of New York

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
New York

The judiciary of New York (officially the New York State Unified Court System) is a branch of the Government of New York that interprets and applies the law of New York, ensures equal justice under law, and provides a mechanism for dispute resolution. The judiciary is based in Albany. The highest court is the Court of Appeals, below which the primary felony trial courts are the Supreme Court and the County Court (outside New York City). The Supreme Court also acts as the intermediate appellate court for many cases, and the local courts handle a variety of other matters including small claims, traffic ticket cases and local zoning matters, and are the starting point for all criminal cases. The New York City Courts make up the largest local court system. The system is administered by the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, also known as the Chief Judge of New York, the Administrative Board of the Courts, the Chief Administrative Judge and numerous other agencies.


In general, the judicial system is composed of the trial courts, consisting of the superior courts and the inferior courts, and the appellate courts.[1]

The appellate courts are the:[1]

  • Court of Appeals
  • Appellate Division of the Supreme Court
  • appellate terms of the Supreme Court
  • appellate sessions of the County Court

The superior courts are the:[1]

  • Supreme Court
  • County Court
  • specialized courts (Court of Claims, family courts, surrogates' courts)

And the inferior courts are the local courts:[1]

  • New York City Courts
  • city courts
  • justice courts (town and village courts)
  • district courts

There are also a few other tribunals that are not normally considered part of the New York State Unified Court System or the judiciary proper.

Court of Appeals

The New York State Court of Appeals building in Albany

The New York State Court of Appeals is the State's highest court. In civil cases, appeals are taken almost exclusively from decisions of the Appellate Divisions. In criminal cases, depending on the type of case and the part of the state in which it arose, appeals can be heard from decisions of the Appellate Division, the Appellate Term, and the County Court.

Appellate Division of the Supreme Court

The New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division is the state's second-highest court. It primarily hears appeals from the superior courts in civil cases, the Supreme Court in criminal cases, and the county courts in felony criminal cases in the Third and Fourth Judicial Departments.[2] The Appellate Division also resolves many challenges to actions by administrative agencies. The court is regionally divided into four judicial departments. The Appellate Division in each department also supervises admission of new lawyers to the state's bar as well as disciplinary proceedings against lawyers, duties that most other states are handled by the jurisdiction's highest court.

Supreme Court

The court of general jurisdiction in New York is the New York Supreme Court. (Unlike in most other states, the Supreme Court is a trial court and is not the highest court in the state.) There is a branch of the New York Supreme Court in each of New York State's 62 counties. Counties with small populations share justices.

In New York City, the Supreme Court in each county that hears all felony cases; outside New York City, these cases are generally heard in the County Court. The Supreme Court hears civil cases seeking money damages exceed the monetary limits of the local courts' jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over most cases in which a party seeks equitable relief such as an injunction, declaratory judgment actions, or proceedings for review of many administrative-agency rulings. The court also has exclusive jurisdiction over matrimonial actions seeking a divorce, legal separation, or annulment of a marriage. In several counties the Supreme Court has a specialized Commercial Division that hears commercial cases.[3]

In almost all cases, appeals from judgments or orders of the Supreme Court are taken to its Appellate Division.

County Court

A New York County Court exists in each county except for the five counties of New York City (in those counties, the New York City Courts and Supreme Court operate in place of a typical County Court).[4] Unlike the Supreme Court, each County Court is considered distinct.[5]

The court has unlimited criminal jurisdiction and civil jurisdiction where the amount in controversy is no more than $25,000.[5] In many counties, this court primarily hears criminal cases (whereas the Supreme Court primarily hears civil cases),[6] and usually only felonies as lesser crimes are handled by local courts.[7]

Appeal from the County Court is generally to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Where an appellate term of the Supreme Court exists, misdemeanor appeals are heard by that court and other appeals are directly to the Court of Appeals.

Specialized courts

  • The Family Court has exclusive jurisdiction over certain matters involving minors, including juvenile delinquency charges, status offenses, child abuse and neglect, termination of parental rights, adoption, and guardianships. It also handles aspects of domestic relations disputes including child support and child custody (although only the Supreme Court can grant a divorce).
  • The Court of Claims hears actions seeking monetary damages against the State of New York itself. The judges are appointed by the Governor subject to confirmation by the State Senate.

Inferior courts

A New York City Criminal Courts building, connected to the Tombs
  • District courts are the local criminal and civil courts in Nassau County and the five western towns of Suffolk County, arraign felonies and try misdemeanors and lesser offenses, as well as civil lawsuits involving claims of up to $15,000, small claims and small commercial claims up to $5000, and landlord-tenant actions.
  • City courts handle the arraignment of felonies. They try misdemeanors and lesser offenses as well as civil lawsuits involving claims of up to $15,000. Some city courts have small claims parts for the informal disposition of matters involving claims of up to $5,000 and/or housing parts to handle landlord-tenant matters and housing violations.
  • Justice courts (town and village courts) try misdemeanors and lesser offenses in towns and villages. These courts are the starting point for all criminal cases outside cities, and handle a variety of other matters including small claims, traffic ticket cases and local zoning matters. They also arraign defendants accused of felonies. These courts may hear civil lawsuits involving claims of up to $3,000 (including small claims cases of up to $3,000). Unlike all other courts which are state-funded, the town and village justice courts are locally funded.[8]

Other tribunals



The McKinney's annotated version of the Civil Practice Law and Rules

Decisions of the New York Court of Appeals are binding authority on all lower courts, and persuasive authority for itself in later cases.[10] Decisions of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division department panels are binding on the lower courts in that department, and are persuasive authority for the Court of Appeals, other Appellate Division departments, and lower courts in other departments.[10] In the absence of a relevant Appellate Division decision from a trial court's own department, the trial court is bound by the applicable decisions of other departments.[10][11] Published trial court decisions are persuasive authority for all other courts in the state.[10]


The Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) is Book 7B of the Consolidated Laws of New York[12] and governs legal procedure in the state's courts such as jurisdiction, venue, and pleadings, as well certain areas of substantive law such as the statute of limitations and joint and several liability.[13][14]


Map of New York judicial districts

The Judiciary of New York is a unified state court system that functions under the Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals who is the ex officio Chief Judge of New York. The Chief Judge supervises the seven-judge Court of Appeals and is chair of the Administrative Board of the Courts.[15] In addition, the Chief Judge establishes standards and administrative policies after consultation with the Administrative Board and approval by the Court of Appeals.[15] The Administrative Board is composed of the presiding judges of each judicial district.[15] The Chief Administrator (or Chief Administrative Judge if a judge) is appointed by the Chief Judge with the advice and consent of the Administrative Board and oversees the administration and operation of the court system, assisted by the Office of Court Administration.[15][16][17] The Judicial Conference of the State of New York is responsible for surveying current practice in the administration of the State's courts, compiling statistics, and suggesting legislation and regulations.[16]

The court system is divided into thirteen judicial districts (JDs): six upstate JDs each comprising 5-11 counties, five JDs in New York City, and two JDs on Long Island.[18] In each judicial district outside New York City, a District Administrative Judge is responsible for supervising all courts and agencies, while inside New York City an Administrative Judge supervises each major court.[19] Administrative Judges are assisted by Supervising Judges who are responsible in the on-site management of the trial courts, including court caseloads, personnel, and budget administration, and each manage a particular type of court within a county or judicial district.[19] The District Administrative Judge is also assisted by the District Executive and support staff.[20] The district administrative offices are responsible for personnel, purchasing, budgets, revenue, computer automation, court interpreters, court security, and case management.[20]

Map of the departments of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division
     First Department      Second Department
     Third Department      Fourth Department

Many counties use the New York State Courts Electronic Filing System for electronic court filing (e-filing).[21][22] The New York State Reporter of the New York State Law Reporting Bureau is the official reporter of decisions and is required to publish every opinion, memorandum, and motion sent to it by the Court of Appeals and the Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court in the New York Reports and Appellate Division Reports, respectively.[23][24][25] The appellate term and trial court opinions are published selectively in the Miscellaneous Reports.[24][26] The State Reporter is appointed by the Court of Appeals.[24] The current versions are the New York Reports 3d (cited as N.Y.3d), the Appellate Division Reports 3d (cited as A.D.3d) and the Miscellaneous Reports 3d (cited as Misc.3d).[27]

All courts, except justice courts (town and village courts), are financed by the state in a single court budget.[8] During 2009, the judiciary had approximately 1300 judges, 4.6 million new cases, a budget in excess of $2.5 billion, and more than 16,000 employees.[28] It has a $2 billion budget, 3,600 State and locally paid Judges and over 15,000 nonjudicial employees in over 300 locations around the State.


There are several officers of the court, including judges, jurors, and bailiffs. The New York State Bar Association is a voluntary bar association of New York, but others exist such the New York City Bar Association.


Judith Kaye was Chief Judge from 1993–2008

Judges of the Court of Appeal are appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of Senate upon recommendation of a commission on judicial nomination.[29] Judges of the Court of Claims elected in the same manner, without the requirement of a commission recommendation.[29] All other justices are elected, with the exception of those of the New York City Criminal Courts, New York City family courts, and some other city courts, which are appointed by the mayor.[29]

Family court judges serve 10-year terms; those outside New York City are elected, while those in New York City are appointed to by the Mayor.[30] Surrogates serve 14-year terms within New York City and 10-year terms elsewhere in the state.[31] Full-time city court judges serve 10-year terms, and part-time city court judges serve six-year terms. District Court Judges are elected to 6 year terms.[32] Justice court justices are elected to four-year terms.[33] The majority of justice court justices are not attorneys, and non-attorney justices must successfully complete a certification course and participate in continuing judicial education.

New York City Criminal Court judges are appointed by the Mayor of New York City to 10-year terms from a list of candidates submitted by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on the Judiciary.[34][35][36] New York City Civil Court judges are elected from districts to 10-year terms, with vacancies filled by the mayor and service continuing until the last day of December after next election,[37] while Housing Part judges are appointed by the Chief Administrative Judge to five-year terms.[34][35][38][39]

Judges are regulated by the Rules Governing Judicial Conduct promulgated by the Chief Administrative Judge, the Code of Judicial Conduct adopted by the New York State Bar Association, and the relevant rules of the respective Appellate Division departments.[40] The eleven-member New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct receives complaints, investigates, and makes initial determinations regarding judicial conduct and may recommend admonition, censure, or removal from office to the Chief Judge and Court of Appeals.[40][41] The New York State Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics issues confidential advisory opinions regarding judicial conduct.[40][42] The Ethics Commission for the Unified Court System administers financial disclosure requirements.[16]

Along with the unusual names for the courts, judges in the Supreme Court and the justice courts are called justices, while in the Court of Appeals and in other courts such as the family courts, county courts, and surrogates' courts, they are called judges.


The Court of Appeals promulgates rules for admission to practice law in New York.[43] The New York State Education Department promulgates standards for law school education, and the New York State Board of Law Examiners administers the New York State bar examination.[43] Attorneys are admitted to the New York bar by one of the Appellate Division departments rather than by the Court of Appeals, though once admitted to any of the Appellate Division departments the attorney is admitted to practice and appear before all New York courts, including the Court of Appeals. Applicants must be interviewed in person by a member of the court's "Character and Fitness Committee" after passing the New York State Bar Exam (the Multistate Bar Examination, and essay questions or the Multistate Performance Test) and Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination.[44]

Lawyers are regulated by various state laws, the Rules of Professional Conduct (based on the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct), and rules adopted by each department of the Supreme Court Appellate Division.[45][46] Each department of the Appellate Division has a committee that investigates complaints of attorney misconduct and may issue reprimands or recommend censure, suspension, or disbarment to the Appellate Division.[47]

Public defenders

The system of public defenders is run by county governments.[48] Each county must provide representation via a public defender, a legal aid society, a panel of qualified lawyers (pursuant to County Law article 18-B), or any combination thereof.[49]


New York State Court Officers are law enforcement officers who provide police services to the New York State Unified Court System (i.e. bailiffs), and enforce state and city laws at all facilities operated by the New York State Unified Court System.

Analysis and criticism

New York's use of remand (pre-trial detention) and bail procedures have been criticized.[50] For example, New York is one of only four states that does not allow judges to consider public safety when making a bail determination.[50] The Court of Appeals ruled in 1991 that most people arrested must be released if they are not arraigned within 24 hours,[51] and in 2013, for the first time since 2001, the average time it took to arraign defendants fell below 24 hours in all five boroughs of New York City.[52] But there have been accusations of systematic trial delays,[53][54] especially with regards to the New York City stop-and-frisk program.[55] There have also been allegations that excessive pre-trial detention and systematic trial delays are used to pressure defendants to accept plea bargains.[56][57]

In 2006 a commission appointed by the Chief Judge of New York found that the county public defender system provided "an unconstitutional level of representation [...] thereby impugning the fairness of New York's criminal justice system".[48][58] The New York Civil Liberties Union has claimed that public defenders in New York are so overworked and overmatched that poor people essentially receive no legal aid in local criminal courts.[48]


Historically, county superior courts—like New York's county-by-county Supreme Court—were the highest level of trial court, overseeing a network of inferior trial courts (e.g., municipal courts, recorder's courts, courts of referees and commissioners, etc.), the decisions of which could be appealed within the trial court system to the superior courts.

The constitution of 1846 made several changes to the organization of the courts. The Court of Chancery was abolished and jurisdiction over equity was transferred to the Supreme Court. The Court for the Correction of Errors was abolished and jurisdiction over appeals was transferred to the Court of Appeals.[23] The New York circuit courts, by the constitution of 1821, were abolished and replaced by the district benches of the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals was established in July 1847, consisting of four statewide elected judges and four justices chosen annually from the Supreme Court.

The Court of Common Pleas had been established in 1686 in New York City, extended in 1691 throughout the state, had been again restricted to New York City in 1846, and was abolished in 1895. The Court for the Trial of Impeachments was established by the New York State Constitution of 1777 and was split from the Court for the Correction of Errors upon that court's disestablishment in 1846.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 123.
  2. ^ Practice of Law 2012, pp. 9-10.
  3. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 127.
  4. ^ Constitution of the State of New York Article VI, § 10. "a. The county court is continued in each county outside the city of New York. There shall be at least one judge of the county court in each county and such number of additional judges in each county as may be provided by law. The judges shall be residents of the county and shall be chosen by the electors of the county. b. The terms of the judges of the county court shall be ten years from and including the first day of January next after their election."
  5. ^ a b Galie 1991, p. 133.
  6. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 128.
  7. ^ Stonecash, Jeffrey M. (2001). Governing New York State (4th ed.).  
  8. ^ a b Local Government Handbook, p. 19.
  9. ^ NY DMV brochure on Traffic Violations Bureau
  10. ^ a b c d Birnbaum, Edward L.; Belen, Ariel E.; Grasso, Carl T. (2012). New York Trial Notebook (6th ed.). James Publishing. p. 1-23.  
  11. ^ Duffy v. Horton Memorial Hospital, 66 N.Y.2d 473, 497 N.Y.S.2d 890 (1985); Mountain View Coach Lines v. Storms, 102 A.D.2d 663, 476 N.Y.S.2d 918 (2d Dept. 1984).
  12. ^ "Zimmerman's Research Guide - New York Civil Practice Act".  
  13. ^ Article 2, Civil Practice Law & Rules 
  14. ^ Article 16, Civil Practice Law & Rules 
  15. ^ a b c d Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 130.
  16. ^ a b c Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 131.
  17. ^ "Office of Court Administration".  
  18. ^ Judiciary Law § 140. "The state is hereby divided into thirteen judicial districts, [...]"
  19. ^ a b "Court Administration".  
  20. ^ a b "9th Judicial District".  
  21. ^ Miller, Roger LeRoy; Meinzinger, Mary. Paralegal Today: The Legal Team at Work. West Legal Studies (6th ed.).  
  22. ^ Report on the Progress Toward Implementing Statewide Electronic Filing in New York Courts,  
  23. ^ a b Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 149.
  24. ^ a b c Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 153.
  25. ^ "About the Official Reports".  
  26. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 151.
  27. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 155.
  28. ^ Galie & Bopst 2012, p. 161.
  29. ^ a b c Local Government Handbook, p. 21.
  30. ^ Constitution of the State of New York Article VI, § 13
  31. ^ Constitution of the State of New York Article VI, § 12
  32. ^ Constitution of the State of New York Article VI, § 16
  33. ^ Constitution of the State of New York Article VI, § 17. Village Law § 3-302. Town Law § 24.
  34. ^ a b The New York State Courts: An Introductory Guide.  
  35. ^ a b  
  36. ^ New York City Criminal Court Act § 22(2)
  37. ^ Colby, Peter W. (1985). "The Government of New York State Today". In Colby, Peter W. New York State Today.  
  38. ^ "Judges".  
  39. ^ New York City Civil Court Act § 110
  40. ^ a b c Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 132.
  41. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, pp. 133–134.
  42. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 134.
  43. ^ a b Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 135.
  44. ^  
  45. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, pp. 136–138.
  46. ^ "New Attorney Rules of Professional Conduct Announced" (Press release).  
  47. ^ Gibson & Manz 2004, p. 138.
  48. ^ a b c Apuzzo, Matt (25 September 2014). "Holder Backs Suit in New York Faulting Legal Service for Poor".  
  49. ^ Yakin, Heather (14 October 2014). "Upstate trial could change course for defense of poor".  
  50. ^ a b Buettner, Russ (5 February 2013). "Top Judge Says Bail in New York Isn't Safe or Fair".  
  51. ^ Sack, Kevin (27 March 1991). "Ruling Forces New York to Release Or Arraign Suspects in 24 Hours".  
  52. ^ McKinley Jr., James C. (19 March 2014). "New York Courts Cut Time Between Arrest and Arraignment".  
  53. ^ Glaberson, William (15 April 2013). "Courts in Slow Motion, Aided by the Defense".  
  54. ^ Glaberson, William (16 April 2013). "For 3 Years After Killing, Evidence Fades as a Suspect Sits in Jail".  
  55. ^ Glaberson, William (1 May 2013). "Even for Minor Crimes in Bronx, No Guarantee of Getting a Trial".  
  56. ^ Gonnerman, Jennifer (6 October 2014). "Before the Law".  
  57. ^ "Accused of Stealing a Backpack, High School Student Jailed for Nearly Three Years Without Trial".  
  58. ^ Commission on the Future of of Indigent Defense Services (18 June 2006), Final Report to the Chief Judge of the State of New York 


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