How is our court system structured?

New York State has four judicial departments corresponding to geographic regions. We in Monroe County are located within the Fourth Judicial Department. It stretches from Utica to Buffalo and Watertown to Corning. Each department is comprised of trial courts, and intermediate appellate courts. Trial courts include County Courts, Family Courts, Surrogates Courts, Supreme Courts, City Courts and Town and Village Courts. Our intermediate appellate court is called the Appellate Division. All of the judges in these courts are elected. Trial court judges are elected for 10 year terms.

Only one court under this structure is both a trial court and an intermediate appellate court, that is the COUNTY COURT. That is where I preside. In addition to handling hundreds of felony criminal cases each year, I am responsible for hearing criminal and civil appeals from our City Court and all of the Town and Village Courts. The appeals consist of evaluating the work and decisions of lower court judges on misdemeanor criminal matters, and civil matters involving claims for up to $15,000, landlord tenant cases, and small claims. We are also the only court to hear challenges to prior felony convictions based on motions to vacate judgements. This dual role requires detailed knowledge of our penal law, vehicle and traffic laws, criminal procedure laws, mental hygiene laws, correction laws, judiciary laws, executive laws and public health laws. County Court Judges are also the only judges who serve as licensing officers, determining pistol permit applications, suspensions and revocations.

Based on my ten years of judicial experience I am also appointed an acting Family Court Judge and Supreme Court Justice.

FAMILY COURT handles matters involving children and families except for divorces. It is considered a civil court. Its jurisdiction includes adoption, guardianship, Foster Care issues, persons in need of supervision, child protective proceedings, termination of parental rights, custody, visitation and support.

SUPREME COURT hears cases that are normally outside the jurisdiction of other courts. It is generally a civil court but can hear criminal matters as well. Its caseload includes divorce, separation and annulment proceedings, mortgage foreclosures, civil matters beyond monetary limits of other courts, injunctions and lawsuits in equity.

SURROGATES COURT hears cases involving the affairs of decedents, including the probate of wills and the administration of estates. It can also handle adoptions.

County, Supreme, Family and Surrogates Courts are considered superior courts.

CITY COURT handles misdemeanor and lesser offense criminal matters and civil matters where the amount of money in dispute is limited.

Is the New York Supreme Court the highest-level court in the State?

While many may assume that the New York State Supreme Court is our highest-level court – no, the New York State Court of Appeals is the highest-level court in our judicial system. It hears civil and criminal appeals from all four of the Appellate Divisions and from the 62 County Courts across the state. It is comprised of seven judges appointed by the governor. Currently, the entire bench has been appointed by Governor Cuomo. Unlike Federal Judges who are appointed for life, all New York State Court of Appeals Judges serve 14 year terms. They may be reappointed but must retire at the age of seventy. All seven judges normally hear every case before the court and the concurrence of four is necessary to reach a decision. The court is unique in that its members decide which cases sent to it will be heard. The Chief Judge is responsible for overseeing the court system throughout the state. The judges of the court are also called upon to decide any contested judicial disciplinary matters.

What is a Judicial Department?

There are four distinct judicial departments in New York State, each contains an intermediate appellate court known as the Appellate Division. The four Appellate Divisions resolve appeals from orders or judgements of the superior courts (County, Supreme, Family and Surrogates) in criminal and civil matters. Each Department is comprised of multiple judicial districts, there are thirteen judicial districts in New York. Each also encompasses a number of counties. The First Department consists of two counties, the Second Department has ten counties, the Third Department has twenty-eight counties and the Fourth Department has twenty-two counties. Even though the First and Second Departments represent a small number of counties they are the busiest of the appellate courts due to their covering the New York City Boroughs and surrounding area. Appellate Division Justices are elected to 14 year terms, they can be re-elected, but must retire at age seventy unless the court administration certifies their continued service for up to six years. Each court is normally comprised of ten to twenty justices. Five justices usually hear a case and a majority of three judges is required to make any decision. All Appellate Division Justices are also appointed by the governor but must be selected from elected Supreme Court Justices in that department. This ensures that they are experienced trial judges before they are called to rule on other judge’s decisions.

Monroe County is situated in the 4th Department and the 7th Judicial District. The 4th Department consists of the 5th, 7th and 8th Judicial Districts.

How is our highest court changing? Part I

In the course of a single year nearly half of the judges on New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will be replaced. Unlike our trial courts (County, Family, and Surrogate, and Supreme Court) and intermediate appellate courts whose judges are elected (some exceptions in NYC and to the Court of Claims), the Judges of the Court of Appeals are appointed by the Governor.

2021 has already seen the unexpected retirement, and sadly the subsequent passing, of Associate Judge Paul Feinman. This year will also see the planned retirement of Associate Judge Leslie Stein and the “aging out” of Associate Judge Eugene Fahey. Pursuant to our state constitution, New York Judges must retire when they reach the age seventy. Judge Fahey reaches that milestone this year so will have to retire on December 31st.

All three will be replaced by candidates vetted and screened by the independent Commission for Judicial Nomination. For each position that opens on the Court of Appeals the commission will put forward a number of qualified candidates for the Governor chose from. These lists are usually comprised of sitting Justices from the four Appellate Divisions and senior attorneys in private practice from large law firms. All of the Appellate Division Justices are past trial judges with extensive courtroom experience.

Voters don’t pick Court of Appeals Judges, but we effect these gubernatorial choices by electing trial judges who share our values.

How is our highest court changing? Part II

Historically the Judges of the Court of Appeals are geographically representative of our state. Judge Feinman was from Long Island / New York City, Judge Stein is from the Albany area and Judge Fahey is from Buffalo. While there is no requirement that the judges be replaced with someone from their region, governors have usually maintained some geographic diversity on the court. Currently, the Commission has put forward a list of seven candidates to replace Judge Stein. Because she had announced her planned retirement in advance the process to find her successor has been moving forward for some months. Among those recommended for appointment are 4th Department Appellate Division Associate Justices Shirley Troutman and Erin Peradotto. Both are exceptionally well qualified and experienced trial judges. The Governor has until May 8th to select a candidate.

Next the commission will have to consider Judge Feinman’s position. It is possible the Commission could again put forward those candidates not selected by the governor to replace Judge Stein, but it is likely that while some of these candidates will stay in the mix others may be considered as well. It is not unusual for a candidate to have their name put forward more than once.

All of the current Judges of the Court of Appeals have been appointed by Governor Cuomo, including Chief Judge Janet DeFiore, and Associate Judges Jenny Rivera, Rowan Wilson and Michael Garcia.

Do you support the Chief Judge’s proposal to restructure the courts?

As a sitting judge I am ethically prohibited from voicing an opinion about any issue that may come before a court. This is one such issue. Having said that, I recognize that New York has the most complex trial court system structure of all the states. The Chief Judge’s proposal is designed to consolidate our court system from the nine current courts down to three. The argument in favor of these changes is that it would allow for greater efficiencies by allowing a judge to hear all the various claims arising from a given case. One judge would be able to fashion global solutions to multifaceted problems. Litigants would come before one court rather than scrambling to appear before numerous judges often in different physical locations. It would also allow the Office of Court Administration to assign judges where they are needed most, thus addressing any backlogs that might arise in a given jurisdiction. This authority could be utilized in situations such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. By consolidating our courts, the belief is that the costs of managing these courts would be reduced, saving taxpayer dollars. The arguments against the proposal focus on the dilution of a voter’s right to choose the judges in their area. Under the plan, judges from other areas of the state could be assigned to preside over cases in any county. Finally, this proposal will not go into effect until at least two consecutive legislatures approve the plan and then only after a statewide constitutional voter referendum is successful.

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