Structure of New York State Courts

Ours is one of the largest and busiest justice systems in the nation. Last year alone, the New York State courts received close to 3.3 million new matters (not including parking and traffic cases), and these filings rise at a rate of close to four percent each year. Our mission: to provide fair and effective resolution of every single case.

Explaining the basic structure of the New York State court system is no easy task. The accompanying chart illustrates the basic scheme created by Article VI of the State Constitution. It is, unfortunately, the most complicated and cumbersome court structure in the country: a welter of nine different trial courts, some found only in New York City, some only found in upstate locales, some with overlapping jurisdiction, and some with only partial jurisdiction over one aspect of a legal dispute. And this chart does not even include the 2,000 Town and Village Justice Courts located throughout the State, which are locally funded but an important part of New York's justice system.

For decades, many have called for reform of this structure, which exasperates litigants, frustrates court administrators and baffles much of the public. In 1997, the court system put forth a new proposal to consolidate the trial court morass into a simplified two-tier system, with a Supreme Court as the court of unlimited trial jurisdiction and a District Court with limited jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters. Under the proposed plan, litigation would no longer be split between two separate courts, such as occurs today when a divorce action is heard in the Supreme Court and custody and support issues are litigated in Family Court. It would enable court administrators to avoid costly duplication and allow greater flexibility in allocating resources when shifts in the caseload create new demands. And the new structure would provide the public with a court system they can understand without reference to a flow chart and a compass. Because the structure of the courts is established in the State Constitution, enactment of the court system's proposal will require passage by two successive Legislatures and then approval by the electorate.