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Which Courts Handle What Cases?

New York State has one of the most complex judicial systems in the United States. There are both courts of "general jurisdiction" and courts of "limited jurisdiction." A court of general jurisdiction can hear any kind of matter. A court of limited jurisdiction is restricted, by statute, to hearing only certain types of cases.

Another distinction between courts is whether they are "trial courts" or "appellate courts." Trial courts are where case is initially heard. They are generally responsible for determining both the "facts" of a a matter and the elements of the "law" that should govern its resolution. Trial court judges are responsible for determining the "law" and can have juries determine the "facts" or they can also determine the "facts" themselves if the parties agree (this is called a "bench trial").

Appellate Courts are generally responsible for handling appeals from cases that have already been heard by a trial court. Unlike trial courts, appellate courts generally do not review the "facts" of a case and will not entertain new "facts" except in compelling cases. This means that most appellate courts are simply reviewing the way the "law" was applied to a case by a trial court.


Trial Courts in NYS

The NYS trial court system is organized by county. Each county has a "County Supreme Court," a "County Court," a "Family Court" and a "Surrogates Court."

County Supreme Courts

County Supreme Courts are the highest level of trial court in NYS and they are courts of "general jurisdiction" and can hear any kind of case. However, in general County Supreme Courts largely restrict the cases they hear to high value civil cases (based on the $$ amount in question), matrimonial cases and Guardianship cases. In a few counties (mostly in NYC) the County Supreme Court will be divided into a "civil part" and a "criminal part." In these counties the "civil part" handles the same sort of cases that other county supreme courts do and the "criminal part" handles felony criminal cases. All of the county supreme courts are "courts of record." This means that everything that happens during open sessions of the court is transcribed by a court reporter. Supreme Court justices are elected in countywide elections for terms of 14 years. They are required to be admitted attorneys in NYS.

County Courts

In most of the counties outside of NYC it is the "County Court" that handles felony criminal cases. These courts can also deal with civil cases up to a certain amount of money. All of the county courts are "courts of record." This means that everything that happens during open sessions of the court is transcribed by a court reporter. County Court judges are elected in countywide elections to terms of 10 years and are required to be admitted attorneys in NYS.

Most criminal cases will originate in a lower court such as a town, village or city court and will be transferred to County Court (or the criminal part of Supreme Court) if and when a defendant is indicted by a Grand Jury sitting in that county.

Family Courts

The Family Court hears matters involving children and families. It has the authority to make legal decisions over the following cases involving Abused or Neglected Children (Child Protective Proceeding), Adoption, Custody & Visitation, Domestic Violence (Family Offense), Foster Care Approval & Review, some types of Guardianship, Juvenile Delinquency,Paternity, Persons in Need of Supervision (PINS) and Support.

All of the Family Courts are "courts of record." This means that everything that happens during open sessions of the court is transcribed by a court reporter. Family Court judges are elected in countywide elections to terms of 10 years and are required to be admitted attorneys in NYS.

Surrogate's Courts

The Surrogate's Court hears cases involving the affairs of decedents, including the probate of wills and the administration of estates. It can also handles adoptions. All of the Surrogate Courts are "courts of record." This means that everything that happens during open sessions of the court is transcribed by a court reporter. Surrogate Court judges are elected in countywide elections to terms of 10 years and are required to be admitted attorneys in NYS.

City Courts

City Courts handle felony arraignments and the prosecution of misdemeanors crimes. City Courts also are responsible for cases involving lesser offenses (violations such as traffic tickets) as well as civil lawsuits involving claims of up to $15,000. Some City Courts also 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. City Court judges may be elected or appointed, depending upon the city. Full-time City Court judges serve 10-year terms. Part-time City Court judges serve six-year terms. City Courts are "courts of record," this means that everything that happens during open sessions of the court is transcribed by a court reporter.

Town and Village Justice Courts

There are close to 1300 Town and Village Courts (collectively known as the Justice Courts) located in most of New York Stateís town and villages (none are located in New York City). The nearly 2,200 Town and Village judges handle close to 2 million cases a year. The hours and frequency of operation of the individual Justice Courts varies, depending on the size of the locality and the size of the courtís caseload.

On the civil side, the Town and Village Courts hear actions seeking monetary awards up to $3,000 and small claims proceedings for awards up to $3,000. These courts also handle landlord/tenant matters that may result in an eviction as well as a money judgment for back rent that is due.

Town and Village Courts are best known for their small claims parts. Small claims proceedings are intended to provide a low-cost, simplified and informal procedure for individuals to resolve disputes involving limited monetary claims. Often individual litigants do not use an attorney in these matters and are not required to do so.

On the criminal side, these courts are authorized to handle matters involving the prosecution of misdemeanors and violations that are committed within the town's or village's geographic boundaries. Most commonly this includes handling the prosecution of traffic tickets and violations.

The Town and Village Courts also conduct arraignments and preliminary hearings in felony matters. In addition, these courts hear Vehicle and Traffic Law misdemeanors and traffic infractions.

Town and Village Justices are required to be on-call 24 hours a day and are often called upon to arraign misdemeanor and felony charges as well as to act as Family Court judges when Family Court is not in session. In cases involving domestic violence, the judges are also authorized to issue orders of protection.

Another difference between Justice Courts and all other courts in NYS is that Justice Courts are not "courts of record." This means that proceedings that take place in these courts are not transcribed, word-for-word, by a court reporter. This can create problems if an appellate court is asked to review a decision made by a justice court judge. To some extent this issue is being addressed by the program that the state government is implementing to create digital recordings of all proceedings. As of early 2009 most New York's justice courts have been pro

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