Maybe you have heard that New York’s Chief Judge wants to take the labyrinth that is the New York court system and streamline it so that people can go through it without feeling like they are in a maze? Our courts have tremendous overlap, and I can have cases where the family is easily dealing with 3 courts and 4 judges, causing unnecessary expense and delay.

Below is an extremely simple explanation of our courts:

Town/Village/City Courts

These are the “people’s” courts. These are the courts that handle minor criminal matters, arraignments, evictions, small claims and traffic violations. For most people, this will be there only interaction with the justice system. Many town courts are extremely busy, for example, the Guilderland Town Court handles thousands of cases a year, with only 3 part time judges. Our local courts are often crowded (standing room only), with people having to wait for hours for simple matters.

County Court

This court handles major (felony) criminal matters. This Court tends to receive a lot of attention from the public.

Family Court

Family Court is a court of limited jurisdiction that handles adoptions; juvenile delinquency proceedings (crimes by persons 18 and under); persons in need of supervision (truancy, minor crimes); custody/visitation; spousal and child support; paternity; abuse/neglect proceedings and family offense cases. Custody and support can overlap with Supreme Court in a divorce action; and certain criminal cases can be heard in family court and a local court.

Surrogate’s Court

This court handles issues dealing with probate and administration of estates, that is, administering the distribution of someone’s assets upon their passing. Surrogate’s court also handles adoptions (like Family Court).

Supreme Court

This is the trial level court of general jurisdiction. If you are dealing with a divorce, car accident, breach of contract, and a myriad of other civil matters it will be dealt with in Supreme Court. Supreme Court also handles certain actions against the State, mainly Article 78 proceedings. These are often brought against State agencies. As Albany is the State Capital, there are many in Albany County.

Court of Claims

These are actions against the State, mainly civil lawsuits.

Appellate Division

There are four appellate divisions where appeals from the County level and Supreme Courts are sent to. An appeal is seeking a reversal or modification of a case based an error in law or fact.

Court of Appeals

This is the highest court in New York State. The Court of Appeals deals with appeals from the four Appellate Divisions. Judges of the Court of Appeals are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

When I explain the court system to clients, I am sometimes asked “are you sure”? because it is so complicated. Unfortunately, I am sure. Here are the 4 courts, 5 judges I talked about:

• Custody and family offense – Family Court (Judge)
• Support-Family Court (Support Magistrate)
• Criminal (lower court)
• Divorce (Supreme Court)

Stay tuned to hear what, if any, changes are made.

October 2019 Margaret Tabak

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