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A Brief History of the Court


THE EVOLUTION OF THE COURT

The New York State Supreme Court was established in 1691, making it one of the oldest continuing courts of general jurisdiction in the United States. Pursuant to legislation adopted by the New York Assembly, the court, originally known as the Supreme Court of Judicature, was given jurisdiction over criminal and civil pleas. The court was also empowered to hear appeals from local courts. The bench consisted of a Chief Justice and two, later three, Associate Justices. Appeals were taken to the royal governor and his council and from there to the Privy Council in London. During the remainder of the colonial period, the New York Assembly and the royal governors were in conflict over the authority to regulate the jurisdiction and procedure of the court, with many New Yorkers claiming that the acts of the Assembly and English common law defined that jurisdiction and procedure. In fact, basic notions of English common law were transplanted to the State, and in part to the country generally, through the workings of the Supreme Court.

The population of the City was small at the time of the creation of the court and the number of attorneys tiny (perhaps no more than 20). New York City did not reach a population of 25,000 until 1774. The Court was not much changed by the first state constitution of 1777, although a local appeals system was, of course, established.

Although the English common law assisted New Yorkers in struggles with the royal governors and provided a basis for the assertion of important rights, that body of law had the disadvantage of being complicated, using complex terminology, ancient categories of lawsuit and legal fictions. Prominent New York attorney Henry G. Sedgwick wrote in 1821 of the persistence of pointless technicalities: "The life has departed, and the soul has gone; but the body is embalmed, and kept to future ages in a useless state, between preservation and decay." This remark reflected a developing spirit of reform in the country of which New York was a leading proponent. Between 1827 and 1829, the Legislature issued the first systematic codification of statute law in the United States.

By the time New York approached the mid-point of the 19th century, the State and City had changed greatly from the tiny, largely agrarian society in which the court had originally been born. The country was experiencing dramatic economic and social changes as the population grew and the industrial revolution spread its effects across the land. New York City and State were, then as now, capitals of commerce, industry, finance and the professions. To accommodate the new realities, the people of the State determined that a revised and modernized court system was required and, thus, the Constitution of 1846 was approved. The Constitution substantially enlarged the Supreme Court and provided that its Justices would be drawn from and sit in districts linked to county lines. This contrasted with the original practice, common in the early days of the Republic, of Judges traveling throughout the State ("riding circuit"). The new Supreme Court was the state's highest court of original, unlimited jurisdiction. In order to simplify proceedings, a new code of procedure, called the Field Code after a leading advocate for reform, David Dudley Field, was introduced in 1848. This code became widely imitated across the country as the United States developed a body of law founded on fundamental English concepts and rights but using methods of pleading and other procedures that were much more simple than the English ones and better suited to a young democracy.

The Supreme Court was the first in the country to record its opinions officially. The caseload and the production of opinions have changed radically from the early days. In 2011, the Supreme Court, Civil Branch, New York County issued 32,980 decisions on motions, which does not include dispositions at trial.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the law in New York continued to develop and to increase in sophistication, in part through the work of the Supreme Court. Industrialization and the rise of corporations transformed the economic foundations of the nation. The law contributed to these changes by providing a reasoned and efficient system for the resolution of all manner of commercial disputes.

New York continued to play an important role in the growth of the law in the twentieth century.  New York lawyers were leading figures in the law’s development, in the movement for greater uniformity and comprehensibility in commercial law, in great debates over legal philosophy, and the like.

At least since the New Deal era, there has been a significant trend toward the use of legislation to address legal questions and a comparatively decreased reliance on the growth of the common law through innovative judicial decision-making.  Law continues to develop through judicial decisions, of course, but more often than in previous times, decisions today concern the interpretation of statutes.  At the same time, the dockets in this court have changed greatly from those of earlier times. For some decades, and continuing to the present, a great part of the work in the court has consisted of lawsuits over physical injuries.

In 1986, this court and the rest of the State court system underwent a dramatic change with the introduction of the Individual Assignment System ("IAS"). Prior to that time, the Justices of this court and their colleagues throughout the State did not concern themselves with the pace at which lawsuits moved and did not supervise cases until the eve of trial.  Different Justices, sometimes many, handled pretrial applications or motions in each case. The IAS system changed this. In most instances, a case is assigned to a single Justice for all or most of its life. That Justice is now charged with the task of assuring that the case comes to a resolution quickly and with as little expense as possible. This represents a great challenge for the Justices of the court, one that was unknown to their predecessors of even a few decades ago, let alone Cardozo or the Justices of the Supreme Court of Judicature. 

Notwithstanding the change in the character of the caseload, the court remains a leading center for the resolution of commercial law disputes.  In 1995, a Commercial Division of the Supreme Court was created in Supreme Court, Civil Branch, New York County and in Monroe County to concentrate on the resolution of commercial lawsuits. The aim was and remains to ensure that New York’s system for addressing these complicated cases is efficient, sophisticated and sound, in keeping with New York’s role as not merely the national but the world capital of commerce, finance, media and other great businesses, enterprises and activities.

This court has been housed over the centuries in various facilities, starting with the Old City Hall. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, Foley Square, where the New York County Courthouse, the court's main facility, is now located, was a deep pond on which residents skated in the winter.  The court sat in City Hall after its completion in 1811. The main courthouse at 60 Centre Street (shown above as it appeared years ago) was designed by a distinguished architect, Guy Lowell of Boston, and opened in 1927. (For a history of this courthouse, click here.)

THE BAR OF THIS COURT

Many lawyers important to the history of the country and our legal system have been members of the Bar of New York and active practitioners before the New York County Supreme Court. Alexander Hamilton, a graduate of King's College (as Columbia University was then known), was a prominent attorney in the City. In the 1780's he had a law office at 58 Wall Street and later on what is now Exchange Place. Hamilton practiced frequently in this court and even wrote a manual on practice in the court. Hamilton, whose term as Secretary of the Treasury helped greatly to establish the economic foundations of the Republic, was a distinguished advocate in commercial law. A recent poll of legal scholars named him the second most significant figure in the history of law in the United States (first was James Madison), in good part for his work on The Federalist Papers. His co-author, along with Madison, was John Jay, former Chief Justice of New York's Supreme Court of Judicature and later first Chief Justice of the United States (that court first sat in New York, in the Royal Exchange Building at Broad Street opposite Fraunces Tavern), whose name was informally attached to the Jay Treaty, negotiated by him with Great Britain, an important milestone in the early history of the country. 

     Other prominent attorneys practiced in this court: for example, Aaron Burr, whose name of course is forever linked to Hamilton’s and, who in the 1790's, maintained his law office at 3 Wall Street, Martin Van Buren, later President of the United States, William H. Seward, Governor of New York, United States Senator for New York, and Secretary of State of the United States, DeWitt Clinton, Samuel Tilden, William Evarts, Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, among other things Governor of New York and President of the New York County Lawyers' Association, Joseph Choate, Joseph Proskauer, John W. Davis.

Thomas A. Emmet, brother of the Irish patriot Robert Emmet, was a prominent lawyer and advocate for parliamentary reform and religious equality in Ireland. Banished from his homeland for political activities, he arrived in New York in 1804 and became a well-known and popular leader of the New York Bar, practicing extensively before the New York Supreme Court of Judicature and serving for a period as the Attorney General of New York. A bust of Mr. Emmet is located in the rotunda of the New York County Courthouse.

Many members of the Bar in this county have been and remain active in two important Bar associations, the New York County Lawyers' Assocation and the New York City Bar Association (formerly the Association of the Bar of the City of New York).  Through these associations, many attorneys make important contributions to progress in the legal system and to the general public interest.

THE JUDICIARY

James Kent was a Chief Justice of this court. He gave New York the country’s first codification of laws and wrote an influential text on American law based upon lectures he gave at the Columbia Law School.  Chief Justice Jay was mentioned above.  Other great Judges presided here, names perhaps not well known to the general public but revered by the legal community for their scholarship, judgment and dedication to the public interest: for example, Lewis Morris, Samuel Seabury, who practiced law in the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, Irving Lehman, Bernard Botein, Charles D. Breitel, to name a few.

Benjamin N. Cardozo, a graduate of Columbia Law School who practiced law at Cardozo Brothers at 96 Broadway and later 52 Broadway, was elected a Justice of this court in 1913.  His outstanding ability was such that he was promptly made a Judge of the Court of Appeals, the State’s highest court, by designation until his election to that court shortly thereafter.   He went on to become Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and to grace the Supreme Court of the United States. Cardozo is generally recognized as among the handful of the greatest Judges in the history of this country

IMPORTANT CASES

In 1735, the court heard one of the great cases in the history of American law and freedom, the seditious libel case brought against the publisher John Peter Zenger because of inconvenient opinions expressed in Zenger's newspaper about the colonial government. The jury acquitted Zenger, though not until after two of his attorneys had been disbarred for giving voice to unorthodox views. This case provided important and enduring lessons for the legal system and the country as a whole about freedom and the power of government, lessons of particular importance during years when the temptation to codify restrictions on speech and debate about politics and matters of broad public interest was formidable.  Documents from the Zenger case and other historically significant cases are maintained by the County Clerk of New York County.  (A list of these cases is available at County Clerk Records.)

Alexander Hamilton by no means confined his practice to commercial law.  In 1804, in People v. Croswell, he appeared for the defendant, an editor who had been indicted for seditious libel based upon information he had printed about President Thomas Jefferson.  Hamilton also represented the defendant in People v. Frear, in which another editor was indicted for criminal contempt based on statements he printed about the proceedings in Croswell.  Hamilton lost these cases, but his arguments ultimately prevailed, contributing to the evolving national understanding of freedom of speech.  

Although many other important cases in the history of the court are well worth noting, of fundamental importance too, of course, has been the court's role as dispenser of justice in hundreds of thousands of  "routine" cases, those that had no particular interest to the general public of the day but that often were of vital concern to the litigants.  The experience of other countries in recent decades should remind us of the centrality of a free, impartial, responsible and effective judicial system to the proper administration of government and the protection of public rights.

CONCLUSION

On the front of the 60 Centre courthouse is this inscription, taken from a letter of George Washington to the Attorney General in 1789: "The true administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good government." This remains both an inspiration and a challenge to the court, which continues to strive today, as it has for more than 300 years, to provide justice to the public of this great City and State.

November 2013