As the recent supreme court judicial race has just occurred and absentee ballots are still being counted, I thought I would discuss our state system of government as it pertains to the New York State judicial branch. This is part one of a two part series on this subject. The “supreme” court in New York is not the highest level court but a court of “general jurisdiction” which handles matters from divorces to personal injury to commercial claims.
Government in New York State is divided into three branches: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch.
Despite popular belief, the judicial branch is not the puppet of the legislative or executive branch. This is an independent branch of government (made up of various courts), whose obligation it is to enforce and interpret laws in order to decide their practical application and constitutionality. Whenever I hear someone say “renegade judge” I often wonder if that person was absent from school the day this lesson was taught, because each judge will think and operate differently, just as each legislator will.
New York State Judicial Branch Complexity
The structure of our court system (i.e. the New York State judicial branch) is complex. There are the trial courts, comprised of City Courts, Town and Village Justice Courts, County Courts, District Courts (in certain counties), Supreme Court, Family Court, Surrogate’s Court, and the Court of Claims. Trial courts are courts that handle criminal and civil matters, although each court may have specific limitations on the type of case that may be brought in that court.
For example, town courts handle traffic tickets, misdemeanors and lesser offenses, and they handle civil suits for monetary claims up to $3,000. The Court of Claims has exclusive authority over any lawsuit that seeks money damages against the State of New York, and certain state related entities (e.g. NYS Thruway).
We also have the “intermediate” appellate courts, which are made up of four appellate divisions, with one in each judicial department. New York is divided into four judicial departments, with each aptly named the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Departments. The intermediate appellate courts hear civil and criminal appeals from lower courts. For those that live in the Capital District and the surrounding areas, you are located in the Third Judicial Department. The geographic region of the Third Department is enormous (ranging from the Canadian border to the lower Catskills and from the Vermont/Massachusetts border to the Finger Lakes).
Finally, we have the Court of Appeals, which is New York’s highest court. This court hears appeals from the state’s intermediate appellate courts, and in some instances from the trial courts. We are fortunate that the Third Department and Court of Appeals are here in Albany and are open to the public.
Have you ever wondered how judges are selected for each of these courts? If so, stay tuned for our next article!
 For a detailed explanation of the New York State Judicial branch, visit https://www.nycourts.gov/Admin/NYCourts-IntroGuide.pdf