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The Court of Appeals of the State of New York

The Court of Appeals, New York State's highest court, is composed of a Chief Judge and six Associate Judges, each appointed to a 14-year term. When a vacancy occurs, or when an incumbent reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70, the Governor makes an appointment from among names submitted by the Commission on Judicial Nomination. Each appointment is subject to confirmation by the State Senate.

New York's highest appellate court was established to articulate statewide principles of law in the context of deciding particular lawsuits. The Court thus generally focuses on broad issues of law as distinguished from individual factual disputes. There is no jurisdictional limitation based upon the amount of money at stake in a case or the status or rank of the parties.

History

For the first several decades of New York's history as a State, the highest court was composed of the Justices of the Supreme Court (a trial court), the Chancellor (a judicial officer) and members of the State Senate. It was known as the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors. It was modeled after the appellate system in England's House of Lords. Perhaps because of its size and unwieldiness it never achieved renown. However, New York's first Chief Justice did: John Jay, one of the founders of our democracy, later became the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court in 1789. Another key figure in the earliest days of the state's legal system was Jay's friend and colleague, Robert Livingston, the first Chancellor. Together with Gouverneur Morris, Jay and Livingston are credited with drafting New York State's first Constitution.

The Court of Appeals was established by the Constitutional Convention of 1846 with eight members, four to be elected for eight-year terms by voters statewide and the other four Supreme Court Justices having the shortest remaining terms to serve as acting Court of Appeals Judges for one year. The Constitutional Convention of 1869 created the Court of Appeals as we know it today. The Court sat to hear appeals for the first time in July 1870. By that year the State had become a bustling center of commerce and industry. Litigation increased to such a degree that New York State's court of last resort became backlogged with cases, a situation that persisted for decades. While the entire nation's judicial system continues to contend with increasing case volumes, New York State's highest court has achieved currency in handling its docket. The Court today typically hands down its decisions six to eight weeks after oral argument of a case.

In most general terms, the Court's work divides into civil and criminal appeals. The of cases originate in trial courts or administrative tribunals, then may be appealed to an intermediate appellate court, and finally to the Court of Appeals.

In that an appeal to the Court of Appeals usually represents a second layer of appellate review, cases that reach the Court are carefully selected. By and large, the Court seeks cases that raise a novel legal issue of statewide significance, or that present an issue that has engendered conflict in the intermediate appellate courts.

Civil and criminal cases reach the Court of Appeals by different routes. In most civil cases, the full Court determines whether to grant permission to appeal.In criminal cases, the determination is made by a single judge. In both types of cases, the criteria for selection are similar.

In 1985, a significant statutory change known as "chapter 300" made the Court Appeals essentially a certiorari court, meaning that for the most part it selects the cases that it will review (much as the United States Supreme Court does). [See LII Lexicon, certiorari.]

Cases decided by the Court of Appeals involving questions under the United States Constitution or federal law may be reveiwed by the United States Supreme Court. In fact, however, there are very few futher appeals after the Court of Appeals has spoken.

As the highest court in the State, the Court of Appeals also has a major role in the administration of New York’s Unified Court System. Under the State Constitution, the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals is also Chief Judge of New York State. Certain administrative policies recommended by the Chief Judge, after consultation with the Administrative Board of the Unified Court System, may be promulgated only after approval by the full Court.

The Court also has the authority to review findings of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, and annually certifies the State judicial branch budget to the Governor and Legislature.

Early Sessions

Prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1846, sessions of the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors were held, at least a portion of the time, on the second floor of the old Capitol Building located on the north side of State Street in Capitol Park, east of the present Capitol Building.

When the Court of Appeals was organized in July 1847, it met in the old Capitol Building and continued there until May 11, 1883. It moved to the present Capitol Building in October of that year, meeting in temporary quarters until the new courtroom in the southwest comer of the Capitol's third floor was completed on January 14, 1884. After 30 years there, the Court outgrew the rooms it had been assigned, and space was needed by the Executive and Legislative branches. It became apparent that other accommodations would be required. Plans were made to relocate the Court to State Hall, down the street from the Capitol. The Court meets there to this day.

Court of Appeals Hall

State Hall, designed by Henry Rector of Albany, was originally erected in 1842 for use as State offices, including those of the Comptroller and the State Architect and Engineer, whose occupancy continued until 1916, when the building was transferred to the Court and became known as Court of Appeals Hall.

The Courtroom

The old courtroom in the Capitol, designed by H. H. Richardson of New York City and Boston, was once described as the finest of any court in the world. It was duplicated in a wing of the State Hall. All the oak trim, many of the portraits, most of the furniture, the fireplace of "the choicest Mexican onyx," the hand-carved oak bench, the railings and other striking features of the old chamber were moved to the new courtroom in 1917, where they are in use to this day. The original wooden ceiling remains in the present Capitol, in an area designated as the Senate Minority Conference Room. The ceiling in the present courtroom appears to be wooden, but is made of molded plaster.

There is one term of the Court of Appeals each year, commencing in January and continuing throughout the year in monthly sessions, usually excluding July. Oral arguments at the Court of Appeals are held during nine calendar months, and the Court usually sits in late August to hear and decide cases related to primary elections.

The flow of business to and through the Court continues on a full-time basis year round. Generally, the Court convenes in Albany for two-week sessions. In periods between the sitting or in-Court sessions, the judges, who reside in various parts of the State (except for one Judge who maintains Home Chambers in Albany), return to their Home Chambers and continue their work of writing opinions and preparing cases for the next session of the Court. These in-Chambers sessions generally last three weeks.

The time during the in-Chambers sessions also is devoted to the thousands of requests for permission to appeal in criminal cases and preparation of recommendations for motions for leave to appeal in civil cases, which are decided by the full Court. Judges have many other judicial and professional responsibilities to fulfill during these periods as well. The Clerk’s Office at Court of Appeals Hall remains fully operational throughout the year.

Each day when in Albany the Court hears oral arguments and meets at least once "in conference." It is at these confidential sessions that the Judges deliberate and reach decisions that become the law of the State.

Oral arguments normally are heard Tuesday through Friday when the Court is in Albany. [See Pending Cases.] All sessions are open to the public. The Court is known to be "a hot bench", meaning that each of the judges has read and studied all the legal papers involved in a case prior to the appearance of arguing attorneys before them in the Courtroom. As a result, the sessions often become question-and-answer exchanges with the Judges asking the lawyers about specific legal points that relate to the argument. Some, of course, become quite lively. The "hot bench" concept accounts for the fact that seldom does a party get more than 30 minutes to discuss a position.