Q: What exactly is the New York State Supreme Court?
A: The New York State Supreme Court is a single trial court of state-wide jurisdiction with branches in all 62 counties throughout the state. However, it is not the highest court in New York, thus the term “supreme” is a bit of a misnomer.1 It is, however, the only court in New York with “general” jurisdiction, meaning that it can hear almost any type of case. Other courts are very limited as to what types of cases they may hear.
Q: What kind of cases are heard in the New York State Supreme Court?
A: The Supreme Court hears both civil and criminal cases. Supreme Court has jurisdiction over personal injury cases, divorces, family matters, contracts, probate, and criminal cases. Justices elected to the Supreme Court serve fourteen (14) year terms.
Q: What is the Third Judicial District?
A: In New York, courts are separated geographically. They are divided into judicial departments and further subdivided into judicial districts. There are four departments, and twelve judicial districts. The Third Judicial District, which is where I am running, is comprised of the following counties: Albany, Rensselaer, Schoharie, Greene, Columbia, Ulster, and Sullivan. This judicial district is a part of the “Third Department,” which generally spans the northern counties of New York.
Q: What are the different types of courts in New York?
A: There are more types of courts in the State of New York than most people may think. In total, there are 13 different types of courts. The highest court is the New York State Court of Appeals, which is called the “Court of Last Resorts” because it is the last place to appeal a matter. There are four Appellate Divisions, which are intermediate appeal courts and typically hear appeals straight from the Supreme Court. I was appointed to the Appellate Division, Third Department by the Governor in 2006. The Supreme Court is a trial-level court with the broadest jurisdiction. It hears more different types of matters than any other court. There are also Appellate Term courts, which are courts that work with the Appellate Division to help decide cases; only half of the Appellate Divisions have Appellate Terms. County Courts are next, and exist in each county outside of New York City and hear both criminal and civil cases. Surrogate’s courts are also in each county and handle all matters concerning decedents’ estates. Every county also has a “Family Court.” Family courts hear almost every type of family matter such as child custody, child support, and child neglect in both the civil and criminal contexts. The Court of Claims is another court and is the only court in which the State of New York can be brought in as a defendant. There are also New York City Criminal Courts and Civil Courts which handle cases only from New York City. District Courts are courts only on Long Island, and function like county courts. There are 61 city courts in each of the major cities outside of New York City, and these courts handle both civil and criminal matters. Town and Village courts are the lowest level court and hear low level criminal cases and small civil disputes.
Q: What are the basic steps of commencing a civil case in the Supreme Court?
A: There are many different steps to commence an action, which vary based on the type of case; it would be difficult to explain each step in every type of case. But generally, an action is commenced by filing a Summons and Complaint or a Summons with Notice, which functions as a charging document listing the allegations by the plaintiff against the defendant. This document is filed with the county clerk in the county in which you are initiating the lawsuit, together with an application for an index number which provides you with an identifying number for the lawsuit. You must then formally serve these documents on the defendant(s) to give him, her, it or them notice of the lawsuit. Generally, the defendant responds with an Answer, which is a document responding to the plaintiff’s allegations. Sometimes a defendant may make a motion to dismiss the action right at the outset of the case. Once a defendant answers, discovery demands will be served upon you. These discovery demands serve to obtain more information regarding the lawsuit, and function to provide full disclosure of all relevant evidence between the parties. In non-negligence cases, you will also be served interrogatories which are a written questionnaire to obtain basic information as to the matter. You will respond to these questions and issue your own demands and interrogatories. Both parties will continue to exchange discovery until they are ready for depositions. Depositions are sworn testimony elicited by each party asking questions to the opposing party. Once depositions are complete, there may be further disclosure which occurs. When both parties are satisfied with discovery, the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness will be filed. This document alerts the Court that the parties are ready to go to trial. The justice assigned to your matter will set a trial date, and may provide other deadlines to make dispositive motions, submit expert responses, and set conference dates to discuss settlement or pre-trial issues. Immediately before the trial, the Court will decide any motions in limine, which are motions made to limit the evidentiary issues during trial. There will also be a final settlement conference to resolve any remaining disclosure issues. After that, your trial will begin and you will pick a jury before which you will present your case.
Q: Are there monetary thresholds to get into different New York courts?
A: Yes, different courts have different monetary thresholds. New York has a policy of handling cases in the lowest possible court based on the threshold. The lowest level courts (the Town and Village courts) can handle cases up to $3,000. City and District Courts handle cases up to $15,000. The New York City Civil Court handles cases up to $25,000, which is the same as the individual County Courts outside of New York City. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all cases, but particularly cases over $25,000. Other courts, such as the Surrogate’s Court, Family Court, and Court of Claims do not have monetary thresholds, but only handle specific types of cases. For example, if you have a case for $14,000, it would be handled in City or District courts. If you have a case for $24,000, it would be heard in New York City Civil Court or, outside of New York City, it in County Court. While these cases still could be heard in Supreme Court, it would likely be sent to County Court because it does not exceed the threshold amount and New York’s policy is to handle the case in the lowest level court possible.
Q: Does it cost money to commence a lawsuit in Supreme Court?
A: Yes. The current filing fee is set by statute, and it costs $210 to purchase an index number. The index number is the identifying number used in your case. For more information on filing fees, please click here to visit the New York Courts website.
Q: What are the requirements to be a New York Supreme Court Justice?
A: There are various requirements to becoming a New York State Supreme Court justice. You must be a resident of the State of New York. You must also be admitted to practice law in New York and must have at least 10 years of practice. Terms are for 14 years or until the justice reaches the constitutional 70-year-old age limit. However, justices can still serve after age 70 as retired justices up until age 76 if they are successfully certified by the Administrative Board.
Q: What is a “bench trial” and how is it different from a “jury trial?”
A: After you file your lawsuit in Supreme Court, your case will progress to the point when you become ready for a trial. You (or your lawyer) will file what is called the Note of Issue and Certificate of Readiness, which are documents that indicate to the Court that you are ready to set a trial date. When you submit these forms, you are permitted to ask for a jury trial in both civil and criminal matters. However, you may elect to have a “bench trial” which is in front of a single justice who will make the decision if you win or lose. Thus, there is no jury. A bench trial is particularly useful in cases where the law is very complicated or very nuanced, which may make it more difficult for a jury to understand the concepts.
Q: Do I need a lawyer to bring a case in a New York Supreme Court?
A: No, you do not need a lawyer to bring a case in any New York State court. However, it is strongly recommended, particularly in the higher level courts, to hire a lawyer. This is because there are many procedural pitfalls which could result in your case being dismissed. Handling a lawsuit, particularly in Supreme Court, can be a daunting task — even for a lawyer. If you have a significant case, it is best to obtain a lawyer to ensure all of your rights are protected. But know that the court clerk and staff personnel are very knowledgeable and, while they cannot provide you legal advice, they can point you in the right direction. As a pro se litigant, you will also be afforded some leeway if you make some minor mistakes, particularly procedural ones. But understand that this will not help you win on the merits if you do not have a viable case. If you cannot afford a lawyer, please contact your local bar association to see if you qualify for pro bono (free) legal assistance.
Q: If I lose my case (or a part of my case) in Supreme Court, can I appeal it?
A: Losing your case can difficult and even traumatic, particularly in personal injury, criminal, and family law cases. If you lose any part of your case in Supreme Court, you have two options. The first option is to make a motion to reargue in front of the same justice. This is a motion asking the justice to reconsider the motion which you lost because the Court overlooked or misapprehended issues of law and/or fact. You can also make a motion to renew if there are new facts or law that were not available the first time the Court considered the adverse motion. However, your best option is to appeal to the Appellate Division, which is an intermediate court which just handles appeals. There are four Appellate Divisions throughout New York, with the Third Department hearing cases from the Third Judicial District. There are very strict deadlines when making a motion to reargue, renew, or filing an appeal. Failing to follow these timelines will preclude you from appealing your case.
1The highest court in New York State is the New York State Court of Appeals.