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Why Are New York State Trial Judges Called "Supreme Court Justices"?:
In Washington, DC, Supreme Court Justices are a pretty big deal. In New York, though, they're pretty common. That's the case because in New York the "Supreme Court" is the trial court, whereas the state's highest court is the "Court of Appeals." The question is, why?

  As best I can tell from a bit of googling, the practice seems to go back, with some modification, to the New York Constitution of 1777. That Constitution set up an appellate system modeled after the House of Lords. Appeals from trial courts of general jurisdiction were heard by a gathering of all of the available state trial judges, the state senate, and the state chancellor in charge of the equity courts. They met in what was called "the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors."

  Because that "court" was really a collection of trial judges and state senators, there was no distinct "high court" consisting of members who only served in that court. The trial judges in the courts of general jurisdiction were as "high" up as the New York Court system went, as they both heard proceedings as trial judges and in the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors. Given that, it wasn't too strange to label these judges as Justices of the Supreme Court.

  In the 19th Century, the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and the Correction of Errors was abolished and replaced with a more modern appellate court. Instead of renaming everything, the trial courts kept the name "Supreme Court" and the high court was named the "Court of Appeals."

  Anyway, that's what a bit of googling suggests. I'm sure the VC's readership includes experts in the history of the New York court system; if I'm getting the history wrong, or there are details or links to add, I hope you will consider pointing it out in the comment thread.
Spartacus (www):
Weren't the NY Supreme Court Justices also "supreme" to the various lower courts of special jurisdiction that existed in the day because it had general jurisdiciton, including having appellate jurisdiction over them?
1.17.2008 1:05pm
Liberal Libertarian:
According to the NYS Unified Court System website:


On May 6, 1691, the New York Assembly passed an act establishing a Supreme Court of Judicature. The bench of the Supreme Court consisted of a chief justice and two (after 1758, three) associate or puisne justices who were appointed by the governor. The Supreme Court of Judicature, or Supreme Court, was the colony's highest court of common law, with both original and appellate jurisdiction. The court exercised origiinal jurisdiction over major criminal cases, over civil actions in which the amount deanded was more than twenty pounds, and over all actions concerning title to real property. The Supreme Court did not, however have exclusive jurisdiction over these types of cases; all could also be tried in the county courts


See http://www.courts.state.ny.us/history/elecbook/duely/pg9.htm
1.17.2008 1:05pm
Guest 202:
Our Bar/Bri NY Practice professor explained that the "Supreme" in the NYS Supreme Court refers to the court's jurisdiction rather than its level in the state court system. of course, the NYS S.Ct. does not have supreme jurisdiction in the sense that it can hear all cases arising under NYS law - for example, tort claims involving the state or local government must be brought in the Court of Claims.
1.17.2008 1:06pm
CJColucci:
But why does the usage, however it started, persist? I've heard it suggested that at judge conferences, our trial-court judges like to say they sit on the "Supreme Court" in New York. Maybe it gets them groupies?
1.17.2008 1:13pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
This nomenclature is not unique to New York. This makes me suspect that the practice of naming the highest court of general jurisdiction the "Supreme Court" was once usual. Here in British Columbia there are three levels of court. The "Provincial Court" hear most criminal cases and certain types of civil case (e.g. small claims, family law). The "Supreme Court" is the court of first instance for other civil cases and certain criminal cases and the first level of appeal for the "Provincial Court". The "British Columbia Court of Appeal" is the top appellate court in the province; its decisions may however be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, where the buck stops. (It is no longer the case that Canadian cases may be appealed to the Law Lords.)
1.17.2008 1:20pm
Larry the Librarian:
Before the 1947 Constitution, New Jersey also had an inferior court called the Supreme Court, but it was one of many including Chancery, Prerogative, Orphans, Oyer and Terminer, and Quarter Sessions, among others. The high court in those days was called the Court of Errors and Appeals. I don't begin to know what the jurisdiction of the old Supreme Court was, but it was probably an even more confusing setup than New York has now.
1.17.2008 1:21pm
Ben P (mail):

Court of Errors


Apropos of nothing, a high court named the "court of errors" would lead to amusing headlines.
1.17.2008 1:25pm
Cornellian (mail):
It would be nice if every state adopted the modern terminology of a trial court called "Superior Court," an intermediate appellate court called "Court of Appeals" and a top court called "Supreme Court" but historically that hasn't been the case and for reasons of inertia if nothing else it's not likely to happen anytime soon.
1.17.2008 1:30pm
neurodoc:
Maryland is another state without a "supreme" court, and hence any "supremes." Here the highest one can go is to the Court of Appeals.
1.17.2008 1:31pm
alias:
If I were a "Supreme Court Justice," and the court system changed around me, I might be resistant to the idea that I should give up my title or have the name of my court changed.

That would make me a bit of an ass, but I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of a typical lawyer.
1.17.2008 1:50pm
donaldk2 (mail):
In New York, what are the courts of General Sessions, and Special Sessions, and how do they relate to the Supreme Court?
1.17.2008 1:55pm
The Ace:
Maryland gets more confusing than that. The Court of Appeals is the highest Court, with a discretionary cert docket. The Court of Special Appeals, is not nearly as special, as it is the intermediate appellate court that hears all appeals (like a Circuit Court of Appeals in the federal system).

But the styling red robes of the judges on the Court of Appeals totally make up for the confusion.
1.17.2008 2:01pm
Truth Seeker:
I learned in law school that the reason is that when Tammany Hall ran New York, everybody wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice in exchange for supporting the party, so they made all trial courts Supreme Courts so there were so many more political plums to pass out.
1.17.2008 2:14pm
WJR:
Despite its comparative lack of prestige, I'd definitely play the "I'm a supreme court justice" card at the bar on girls who wouldn't know the difference.
1.17.2008 2:39pm
CJColucci:
Despite its comparative lack of prestige, I'd definitely play the "I'm a supreme court justice" card at the bar on girls who wouldn't know the difference.

Tsk, tsk, WJR. New York has many fine (and some damn fine) female Supreme Court Justices. Then again, a few of them would be interested in picking up girls, just as some of the male Justices would be interested in picking up men.
1.17.2008 2:47pm
Larry the Librarian:

Court of Errors



Apropos of nothing, a high court named the "court of errors" would lead to amusing headlines


The joke my mom learned from the old pre-'47 types was that the Court of Errors and Appeals was so named because there were no appeals from its errors. Has law humor improved? You decide.
1.17.2008 2:49pm
DrGrishka (mail):
I think it may also be because each "Supreme Court" is Supreme for the County in which it is sitting. There may be lower level courts (with limited jurisdiction), but each county has one "Supreme" Court. Hence the name, Supreme Court of New York County
1.17.2008 3:17pm
Truth Seeker:
I think it may also be because each "Supreme Court" is Supreme for the County in which it is sitting. There may be lower level courts (with limited jurisdiction), but each county has one "Supreme" Court. Hence the name, Supreme Court of New York County

But if it is the trial court, aren't there a dozen or more supreme courts in each county? Or at least the bigger ones?
1.17.2008 3:24pm
Waldensian (mail):

That would make me a bit of an ass, but I'm trying to put myself in the shoes of a typical lawyer.

Wait a minute! I think I've just been insulted!! :)

Can one of you New York types explain the relationship between the "Appellate Division," the Supreme Courts, and the Court of Appeals?
1.17.2008 3:29pm
emsl (mail):
Just to add another perspective, in Massachusetts the final court is called the "Supreme Judicial Court" to distinguish it from the "General Court" which is, in reality, the legislature.
1.17.2008 3:38pm
Mike Brown (mail):

Can one of you New York types explain the relationship between the "Appellate Division," the Supreme Courts, and the Court of Appeals?


The Supreme Courts are the lowest level state courts, generally established at one per county (there are also county, city, town and village courts at those levels). The Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court, to give it its full name) is the intermediate level, above the Supreme Courts. The App. Div. is divided into four Departments.

The Court of Appeals is the highest court in the state.
1.17.2008 3:38pm
TomH (mail):
The New York Supreme Court is supreme over all other trial courts in NY including the Court of Claims, which is of concurrent jurisdiction to the trial parts of the Supreme Court. All trial court decisions, from small claims on up to the trial parts of the Supreme Court and the Court of Claims, are appealed to one of the Supreme Court's Appellate Divisions on their way to the Court of Appeals.

By the way, for all of you who denigrate trial level courts, I hope you never try a case. Like appellate justices, there are those trial judges with a tenuous grasp of the law, and some who are great; some are even affirmed by the US Supreme Court.

Appellate celebrity and power is a function of arbitrary limits on access to justice at those levels. If there was only one trial court in the United States, I bet that judge would be pretty famous and have a lot of power.
1.17.2008 3:40pm
TomH (mail):
Waldensian

To clarify is response to your question, whe I refer to THE Supreme Court, I am referring to that entire level of trial court, comprised of hundreds (?) of trial courts or "parts" throughout the state. Each part generally being a single judge, or at least a specialized section of the Court. I.e. some courts have a special part just for managing pre-trial discovery and the judges rotate through it throughout the year.

You know, now that I am trying to do it, this is really hard to explain. Don't get me started on the "calendar syatem" used in the counties of New York City :)
1.17.2008 3:46pm
TomH (mail):
*"calendar system"
1.17.2008 3:48pm
Randy R. (mail):
"It would be nice if every state adopted the modern terminology of a trial court called "Superior Court..."

For once, I have to disagree with Cornellian. Why must everything be cookie cutter? Should our courts have to be like every suburb, with it's Gap and Banana Republic? Let New York retain it's individualistic charm -- there ain't much else going for it.....
1.17.2008 3:52pm
TomH (mail):
It is also a symptom of the Federal-government-regulation-would-solve-all-the-problems types. Sometimes I think that there is a faction of the public who would see the States and State Govs made into administrative districts of the Federal Gov. and rid us of all the diversity and independance between the States.
1.17.2008 3:57pm
Steve H. (mail):
"Superior Court" is almost as misleading as "Supreme Court" as a name for a trial court.

The federal system probably is the best, in that you have district courts (for each district), then a court of appeals (for appeals), and then a supreme court (which rules over all other courts). As far as I know, a lot of states in the west follow that system.
1.17.2008 4:10pm
ak47pundit (www):
Steve H:

Michigan goes one better than your suggestion.

Our township/city Courts are called District Courts (original jurisdiction up to $25k, misdemeanors and criminal preliminary exams for felonies.

Each County has a Circuit Court (original j over $25k) as a place of appeal of District Court error, and for felonies.

The we Have the Michigan Court of Appeals

and finally (if we don't count the Court of Claims as a separate track for some claims)

The Michigan Supreme Court

It tends to be a very clear system and easy to navigate and understand.
1.17.2008 4:39pm
dew:
Just to add another perspective, in Massachusetts the final court is called the "Supreme Judicial Court" to distinguish it from the "General Court" which is, in reality, the legislature.
Or very formally, "The Great and General Court of the Commonwealth". Before MA's current constitution (pre-1780) it could and did hear judicial appeals. The new constitution, mostly written by John Adams, created the SJC and stripped the General Court of judicial functions.
1.17.2008 4:39pm
ardbeg78 (mail):
Another misnomer, referred to in the comments, is the Unified Court System. It is anything but, as was pointed out, because each county has one or several inferior court systems with either different or concurrent jurisdiction to the county's Supreme Court. It is only once you get into the Supreme Court where you have some semblence of a unified system, but even there, it varies from county to county. For example, in New York City, the Supreme Court, in addition to being the trial court of general jurisdiction, hears appeals (at its Appellate Term) from the inferior county court, after which your only recourse is the Court of Appeals. In any event, despite some serious clamoring for reform, a change in the system (and nomenclature) will not happen because - - - that would require an act of the legislature, which is impossible in New York State.
1.17.2008 4:51pm
Kent Scheidegger (mail) (www):
California used to have municipal courts for misdemeanors and small civil cases and superior courts for large civil cases, felonies, and appeals from municipal court.

Then we got the brilliant idea to unify the trial courts. So now if you lose your misdemeanor or small civil case, you get to appeal from the superior court to the superior court. And, given that there is nothing below it, the superior court isn't actually superior to anything.
1.17.2008 4:55pm
Kenvee:
Well, here in Texas we have at the lowest level the municipal or justice courts, which are city ordinances or class C misdemeanors (basically traffic court). Those can be appealed to county courts, which also handle misdemeanor criminal cases, smaller civil cases, probate, and mental committments. (There's a bit of difference between constitutional or statutory county courts, but not enough to matter.) District courts handle the larger civil cases and felonies. So when you refer to the trial court, it's usually either the district or county court.

Appeals first go to one of fourteen Courts of Appeal, the intermediate appellate courts. And our state "high court" is actually two courts -- the Supreme Court for civil matters and the Court of Criminal Appeals for (you guessed it) criminal matters.
1.17.2008 5:24pm
David Krinsky (mail):
The Ace:

Maryland is even more confusing than that. There are also District Courts, which have exclusive original jurisdiction over civil claims less than $5000, misdemeanors, landlord-tenant, and a few other things, and concurrent original jurisdiction over civil claims $5000-$30,000.

Appeals from District Courts go to the Circuit Courts; appeals from appellate decisions of the Circuit Courts can be taken discretionarily by the Court of Appeals, but do not go to the Court of Special Appeals.

So the route is either

District->Circuit->Court of Appeals

or

Circuit->Court of Special Appeals->Court of Appeals.

And don't forget the Orphans' Court!

But I agree that with the red robes, all is forgiven.
1.17.2008 6:00pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
In New York, intentional homicide with malice aforethought is Second Degree Murder.
1.17.2008 6:03pm
David Krinsky (mail):
Cornellian:

Why should the lowermost courts be called "Superior"? In the absence of courts of more limited jurisdiction, to what are they superior? The term makes the most sense in jurisdictions that don't have simple, unified court systems.
1.17.2008 6:04pm
Waldensian (mail):
Many thanks for the info on NY courts. I have always wondered these things.

Stop me before I kill again: Do the 4 Departments of the Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court) correspond to subject areas, geography, neither?
1.17.2008 6:22pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

Do the 4 Departments of the Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court) correspond to subject areas, geography, neither?

Law and Order branches: Law and Order, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order: Trial By Jury, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
1.17.2008 7:07pm
pjh (mail):
Waldensian:

Stop me before I kill again: Do the 4 Departments of the Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court) correspond to subject areas, geography, neither?


Geography. 1 and 2 are down by "the City", 3 is eastern upstate and sits in Albany, and 4 is western upstate and sits in Rochester.

Another tidbit of NYS trivia: Attorneys are admitted to practice by one of the four departments, but are for all purposes considered to be admitted to practice before the 'highest court in the state', because .. well you can and that is how it is. Now go in peace ;-)
1.17.2008 7:54pm
Waldensian (mail):
Thanks pjh. Much appreciated.
1.18.2008 1:23am
Rodger Lodger (mail):
Attempts to change the name of the Supreme Court have definitely been defeated at least in part by the lobbying of the Supreme Court justices, who may have an association; I have read this in past New York Times articles/editorials. That the Appellate Division is a "division" of the Supreme Court has enormous real world consequences. As the Supreme Court is given fact finding power by the state constitution, it follows the Appellate division has fact finding power, and indeed can grant a new trial on appeal on the ground the verdict was against the weight of the evidence, and in other ways make findings of fact (or shall we say revise findings made below). In fact, in a criminal case the Appellate Division can grant a new trial on weight of the evidence (only in favor of defendant, of course), but the trial judge cannot! This is due to a quirk in the Criminal Procedure Law. New Jersey's appellate division also has some fact finding power, but I do not know why (or care).
1.18.2008 2:34am
Jay:
I think the NY system actually makes some sense (historically, at least) if you compare it to the English set up, where there is something called the "Supreme Court of England and Wales" that encompasses both two levels of trial courts (one of which sometimes serves an an appellate court to the other) and the Court of Appeal. Meanwhile, there are courts both below (the equivalent of municipal courts) and above (House of Lords) the Supreme Court. Of course, this version of the English system is somewhat modern, and I don't purport to understand how English courts worked at the time the NY system was established--assizes, Exchequer, etc.
BTW, speaking of robes, it's interesting that most elaborate judicial robes in the UK are reserved for trial courts, particularly those hearing criminal cases, while appellate judges wear basic black robes.
1.18.2008 2:44am
Adrian (mail):
@Jay: the Act that set up the UK's Supreme Court of Judicature in 1873 also abolished the House of Lord's judicial functions. That abolition only lasted two years, but initially the "Supreme Court" really was.

"...it's interesting that most elaborate judicial robes in the UK are reserved for trial courts, particularly those hearing criminal cases, while appellate judges wear basic black robes."

It's to frighten the rubes, sorry, impress the awesome majesty of the law upon its subjects.
1.18.2008 9:23am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
When I was writing For the Defense of Themselves and the State (1994), I was amazed and surprised at the enormous variety of how various state style their different levels of courts. Others have already mentioned Massachusetts and its Supreme Judicial Court. West Virginia has its Supreme Court of Appeals. As my footnote on pages 208-9 observed:
The term "Superior Court," as used in Pennsylvania, may be confusing to non-Pennsylvanians. This is an appellate court with jurisdiction over most criminal cases, but not all. Attempts to tease out the exact structure of the Pennsylvania appeals process have left this author quite confused. Those who desire to share in the confusion are referred to The Pennsylvania Manual: 1970-71 (Pennsylvania Dept. of Property and Supplies, 1971), 473-4.
And yes, I wish New York, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and a few others would get consistent on this.
1.18.2008 11:44am
laina (mail):
Very interesting!:)
1.20.2008 3:00pm
jay:
Here is another little appreciated fact about the NY State court system:

The four appellate courts represent "divisions" of a single Supreme Court of the State of New York. Therefore, for purposes of precedent, a decision of any of the four Appellate Divisions binds all lower courts, statewide. Other Appellate Divisions may re-examine the ruling of the first Division, and may reach a different result. Trial level courts, however, may not.

This is, of course, unlike the federal system where a decision of one Court of Appeals binds only the district courts in that circuit.
1.20.2008 11:07pm
Dan Schmutter:
Interesting comparison of NY vs NJ:

While the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York is geographically divided, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey is not. Thus, in New Jersey, all intermediate appellate decisions have statewide application.

Dan
1.21.2008 4:13pm
Nicole Black (mail) (www):
Each county has a "Supreme Court", which is "supreme" to the lower courts—either city courts or justice courts (town or village courts). As explained above, the 4 appellate divisions are also assigned geographically by region. There has been a push to add a fifth appellate division downstate due to the high caseload in that region. Spitzer proposed major judicial reforms, including the addition of an appellate divsion, last April, many of which have not yet been enacted. (See this post:post )

As for why we do it this way—probably for the same reason that "old-school" lawyers offer whenever there is a reluctance to change with the times—"It's the way things have always been done."
1.22.2008 10:55am
J.D. Gallaway (mail) (www):
And for another bit of law humor... Don't forget, in NYS, every mall also has a "Food Court"

Its stupid stuff like this (NYS's court structure) that make me think the Imperial State Senators should have accepted my suggestion for the state quarter... a picture of a sharp, pointed wood screw, and in latin, the phrase "Bend Over &Take It Again"

Course, it is things like this that made me decide to pack up &move to Pennsylvania in the course of a month.
1.28.2008 5:01pm