Structure of the Appellate Courts

Simply looking at a chart or description of the court systems in New York or the federal courts can be overwhelming and intimidating. Having a clear understanding of these structures can go a long way to understanding the options and paths before a person who finds themselves convicted of a crime in New York state court, or in federal courts in New Jersey or New York.

The state courts system in New York is particularly complex and difficult to comprehend. First, outside of New York City, there are the many local town and village courts throughout each county, which handle misdemeanors and unindicted felonies, as well as other civil matters. City courts have similar jurisdiction in the 61 cities throughout the state. Outside of New York City, each county has a County Court that has jurisdiction over all criminal matters in the county, including indictments. Importantly, the County Court in each county is also the intermediate appellate court, or court of first review, for appeals from certain decisions by city, town, and village courts. Instead of having County Courts, each county or borough within New York City has a Criminal Division of the Supreme Court of the State. The Supreme Court in New York is actually the lowest, trial-level court in New York, as opposed to the federal court system where the “Supreme Court” is the highest appellate court.

The primary intermediate appellate court in New York are the Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court. There are four Appellate Divisions, one for each of the four judicial departments that divide up the state geographically. The Appellate Divisions hear appeals from Supreme Court, County Courts, Family Court and Surrogate’s Court. The justices who sit in these Departments are appointed by the governor, unlike many other judges throughout the state system that are elected.

Finally, the highest court in New York is called the Court of Appeals. This court functions similarly to the United States Supreme Court in the federal system. This Court is located in Albany, and is composed of a chief judge and six associate judges, all of whom are appointed by the governor, with review by the state senate. The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals is also the chief administrative judge for the entire state system. The Court of Appeals primarily hears appeals from the four Appellate Divisions, but unlike appeals to the Appellate Divisions, the Court of Appeals chooses which appeals it hears and there is not right to have this court review the intermediate appellate courts decisions.

The federal court system is decidedly simpler, but comes with its own idiosyncrasies and complications. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal system, but is sometimes called “the highest court in the land” because it also can hear appeals from highest courts of each state, such as the New York Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court is composed of nine justices, with a Chief Judge and eight associate justices. Like the Court of Appeals, parties must get permission to have the Supreme Court hear their appeal from the intermediate appellate court.

The Courts of Appeal are analagous to the the Appellate Divisions in New York, and serve as the intermediate appellate court or court of first review. The Courts of Appeal are divided into twelve different regions or “circuits” that divide the nation up geographically, ad there is an additional Federal Circuit that hears appeals in certain specialized areas of law. The District Courts are the lowest, trial-level courts in the federal system, and are the main reason that the federal system is significantly simpler than the New York state court system, in that the 94 District Courts divide up the nation geographically and handle all trial-level matters, civil and criminal, rather than the numerous hyper-local or specialized trial level courts in the New York state system.

Most cases in either system start at the trial-level court of appropriate jurisdiction, whether it is the District Court in the federal system, such as the District of New Jersey, a local town court such as the Clarkstown Justice Court in Rockland County, NY, or the Westchester County Court for an indicted case in that county. Once the case has been resolved or an appealable decision has been rendered, a party can appeal that verdict or decision to the appropriate court of first review “as of right,” meaning everyone is entitled to this first level of review and the court cannot refuse to hear the appeal. This first appeal would be to the appropriate court of appeals in the federal system, such as the Second Circuit or Third Circuit, or the appropriate Appellate Division in New York such as the First Department or Second Department. If this intermediate appellate court modifies or overrules what happened in the trial court, the case will often be remanded or sent back down to the trial court with directives from the appellate court for some further action. This decision by the intermediate appellate court can, in turn, be appealed to the highest court such as the United States Supreme Court or the New York Court of Appeals but, again, the parties generally do not have a right to this second level of review, and must get permission from that highest court to have the decisions reviewed. The U.S. Supreme Court, New York Court of Appeals, or other similar courts will typically agree to hear cases when there is either a disagreement on some legal issue between two or more of the intermediate appellate courts below them that needs to be resolved, where there is some new and important issue being decided, or where there is some highly significant government interest at stake.

This overview is just scratching at the surfaces of these highly complex and difficult to navigate systems. There are many exceptions or alternatives to some of the descriptions and explanations here, and entirely separate areas that sometimes cross between systems such as Writs of Habeas Corpus. There is no substitute for an experienced and knowledgeable attorney who can help guide you through this process.