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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Winter 2006

Judge Sullivan Serves as Multi-Hatter in Chenango County


Every Monday morning, Judge W. Howard Sullivan leaves his loft apartment in Norwich, N.Y., and walks with an armful of freshly-baked bread in bags with his private label into the Chenango County courthouse.

His staff, and even some defendants, know that Judge Sullivan will arrive with loaves of white bread with potato flakes he made over the weekend.

Judge Sullivan
Judge W. Howard Sullivan

Although he is known as a compassionate man, no one questions his ability to uphold the law.

"It is important to remove from society those who commit serious crimes and to find effective age-appropriate ways of redirecting the others who will be back in our community," said Judge Sullivan. "[However] I always keep in mind that I am a public servant. I am a listener and try to make people feel that they have been treated fairly."

But Judge Sullivan hears more than just criminal cases - he is a "multi-hat"judge, presiding not only over County Court but also Surrogate's and Family Court.

Excluding New York City, every county in the state has at least one elected County Court judge. Where there is no statutory provision for the election of a Surrogate or Family Court judge for a particular county, the law provides that the County Court judge will serve in those courts as well. Such judges are often referred to as the county judge. There are 57 multi-hat judges across the state: 38 who preside over all three courts; 13 who are County Court judges and Surrogates; and six who are both County and Family Court judges.

Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for Courts Outside New York City Jan H. Plumadore, who previously served as a multi-hat judge in Franklin County, says the concept of a multi-hat judge has been around since the 1800s.

In the course of a week, and often the same day, Judge Sullivan goes back and forth between the County Courthouse, a historic two-story structure in the middle of town, and the Chenango County Office Building across the street, which houses Family Court and Surrogate's Court. "I handle murder cases, life support cases, abuse cases, domestic violence cases, estates involving multi-millions of dollars, and a multitude of other cases," said Judge Sullivan.

As part of his County Court duties, Judge Sullivan presides over the drug treatment court started in Chenango County two years ago. He also serves as an Acting Supreme Court justice in the absence or at the request of the County's only Supreme Court justice, Kevin Down. Prior to his election to County Court in 1999, Judge Sullivan was a City Court judge for 22 years.

Such a multi-court structure does not mean that each court's docket is necessarily light. In the August-September term of last year, the Chenango Family Court caseload was higher than that of several surrounding counties; all except one have two county judges that share the multi-court caseload.

On the day this writer visited, Judge Sullivan entered Surrogate's Court in the Chenango County Office building just after 9 a.m. to hear an update on a case involving an estate. At 9:30 a.m., across the street at the County Courthouse, he presided over an arraignment, then conferenced several criminal cases. At 10:15 he heard a civil motion involving a name change. At 10:30 a.m. he attended a drug court meeting regarding the status of everyone in the program. And, at 11:30 a.m. he presided over the drug treatment court and held a graduation ceremony for those who were being successfully discharged.

After lunch, it was time for Family Court. First there was an initial appearance regarding a child custody case, followed by several other custody matters involving modification or enforcement of an order and an initial appearance regarding an order of protection.

In theory, Mondays and Fridays are primarily set aside for County and Surrogate's Courts, while Tuesdays through Thursdays are Family Court days except during County Court trial terms. "Of course, responsibilities inherent to two courts do not cease because the day 'belongs' to another court, and so the three hats never really come off and the job is more often a difficult juggling act," said Court Attorney Thomas Kelly.

Winter 2006 PDF Format
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State of the Judiciary Judicial Elections Report Summary Jury Trials Indigent Defense Services Multi-Hat Judge Matrimonial Commission Solo & Small Firm Practice Office of Self-Represented National Adoption Day Court Reporters Listening Conference Construction Update Historic Courthouses and Trials Did You Know? Judicial Institute Calendar UCS Katrina Fund Update Black History Month


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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov