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Appellate Division - First Department
Pre 1896

The caseload of the Appellate Division, First Department, has reflected the rich and complex texture of life in New York City.

In 1946, Chief Justice Stone of the U.S. Supreme Court, said of the Appellate Division, First Department, that it “in fact transacted more judicial business... than any other court in the world.” Now, fifty years later, the Court is still the pre-eminent state appellate court in the nation.

The First court system in New York was established by Peter Stuyvesant when the city, then known as New Amsterdam was still a Dutch colony. When in the seventeenth century New Amsterdam was surrendered to the British and became New York, the courts began to follow the English common law model. However, by the late nineteenth century, the existing court system had become inefficient, wasteful and inadequate to the needs of the day.

An overwhelming public demand for reform led to the 1894 Constitutional Convention. It was out of that convention that the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of New York was born.

The Constitutional Convention convened on May 15, 1894, electing Joseph H. Choate as President. Elihu Root, a prominent New York City attorney, was appointed to lead the judiciary committee that was to make recommendations for amending Article VI of the New York State Constitution, which governed the judiciary.


Photo: Joseph H. Choate
Joseph H. Choate

When the Constitutional Convention began to prepare its changes to the State Constitution, Root, although a powerful and influential Republican, worked closely with Louis Marshall, a Democrat from Onondaga County, to develop the proposed revisions.

In his opening address to the Convention, Root noted the two evils that needed remedy were the great delays in bringing cases to trial and in securing the final disposition of cases on appeal. Many of the difficulties that plagued the judiciary system resulted from the confusing patchwork of courts in existence at the time.

Photo: Elihu Root
Elihu Root

The two concerns of the Judiciary committee were interrelated: there had to be a more efficient use of judicial resources; and there had to be greater public confidence in the judiciary System itself.

The two issues seemed to go together. The Court of Appeals had found its caseload increasing because parties had no respect for the decisions of the lower courts. The Legislature had created so many grounds for appeal to the Court of Appeals that virtually every decision of a lower court was appealed. Many of the lower court decisions were appealed to what was the precursor of the Appellate Division, the General Term of the Supreme Court. However, the same judges who sat in the trial courts also served in the General Term; this led, in smaller judicial districts, to the situation where a judge might well be one of three appellate judges hearing an appeal of his own decision as a trial judge.

To eliminate the deficiencies of the existing system, the judiciary committee put forth recommendations that included the consolidation of Superior city Courts with the Supreme Court, the creation of an effective intermediate appellate court with broader jurisdiction and powers, and thelimiting of the powers of the Court of Appeals to declaring and settling of law only. In order to lessen the pressure on the calendar of the Court of Appeals, a newly-created Appellate Division was to have a final say on questions of fact and on all interlocutory proceedings. Thus, the General Terms of the Supreme Court were abolished, as were the Court of Oyer And Terminer, and the Circuit Courts. All these were subsumed under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

The Appellate Division was created during this reorganization.

Transcripts of the debate at the convention indicate that the judiciary committee from the outset considered the Appellate Division to be one level of the Supreme Court, divided into four departments. Its jurisdiction, just as that of the Supreme Court, was understood by the delegates to be statewide; it was divided into departments for the sake of judicial efficiency. The Justices of the Appellate Division were to be elected in the same manner as other Supreme Court Justices, for the same Supreme Court terms of fourteen years, and then were to be appointed by the Governor to sit in the Appellate Division. The Constitutional Convention authorized five Justices for the First Department, a number constitutionally increased to seven in 1925. This number has been augmented by gubernatorial appointments, on certification of need by the Court’s Presiding Justice. Currently, thirteen Justices sit in the First Department.

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