WHOSE SEAT ON THE NEW YORK COURT OF APPEALS DO YOU HAVE?

Author:Pierce, Alan J.
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    In July 2009, the ABA Journal ran a one page "article" that is really a chart, entitled: "Who Died and Made You Supreme Court Justice?" (1) The chart traces each of the nine seats on the Court from as far back as 1789. (2) Ever since seeing that article almost eight years ago, I have always wanted to do a similar chart for the New York Court of Appeals, as I am a great follower of, and a person who thought he knew quite a bit about, New York's highest court. This article is the result of that strong interest and has led to more work than I expected when I started many months ago. I hope you enjoy reading the chart and the information that I have collected as much as I was delighted to create it. (3)

    As explained below, I had to start somewhere and since I worked backward from the 2016 court, I discovered that the best place for me to end was July 4, 1870, when today's modern seven-member Court of Appeals was created. I will provide some detailed information about the makeup and workings of the court and then proceed without further ado to the chart entitled: "Whose Seat Do You Have?"

  2. BRIEF HISTORY OF THE STRUCTURE AND JUDICIAL MAKEUP OF THE COURT OF APPEALS

    The Court of Appeals was created by the New York State Constitution in 1846 to replace both the Court for the Correction of Errors and the Court of Chancery. (4) The court had eight judges: four elected by general ballot at state elections, and the other four were chosen annually from among state supreme court justices. (5) The first four judges elected at the special judicial state election in June 1847 were Freeborn Jewett (two-year term), Greene Bronson (four-year term), Charles Ruggles (six-year term), and Addison Gardiner (eight-year term). (6) The four elected judges and four justices of state supreme court took office on July 5, 1847. (7) Afterward, every two years, one judge was elected in odd-numbered years to an eight-year term. (8) In case of a vacancy, a judge was temporarily appointed by the Governor, and at the next odd-year state election, a judge was elected for the remainder of the term. (9) The Chief Judge was always the elected judge who had the shortest remaining term. (10) The court also had a Clerk, who was elected to a three-year term. (11) The new court inherited over 1,500 pending cases from the Court for the Correction of Errors. (12) After twenty years of operation, the New York State Constitution's judiciary article was reviewed at the 1867, 1868, and 1869 constitutional conventions. (13)

    Many problems had become obvious. The court annually lost half of its membership and acquired four different justices from the [state] supreme court. Every two years, the term of one of the judges elected statewide would end, so that frequently more than half of the court was replaced at the end of a year. In the first twenty-three years of the court's existence, one hundred and twenty[-]three judges were members of the Bench [including twelve different Chief Judges]. (14) In 1869, the proposed new state Constitution was rejected by the voters, but the "Judicial Article," which re-organized the Court of Appeals, was adopted by a small majority. (15) The Court of Appeals was wholly re-organized, taking effect on July 4, 1870. All sitting judges were legislated out of office, and seven new judges were elected by general ballot at a special election on or about May 17, 1870. (16) The new Court of Appeals that was seated on July 4, 1870, was really the beginning of the modern Court of Appeals. Several significant changes adopted then continue today, including that: (1) each judge was elected to a fourteen-year term; (2) the Constitution mandated the retirement of the judges at the end of the calendar year in which they reached the age of seventy; (3) five judges were required for a quorum, while at least four must concur for a decision; (4) "the court had power to appoint and remove its clerk, reporter[,] and attendants;" and (5) in case of a vacancy due to death or resignation, a judge was appointed by the Governor until a successor was chosen at the next state election, who would then be elected to a full fourteen-year term. (17)

    In the interest of minority political party (then, the Republicans) representation on the new court, "the 1869 Constitution provided that two appointed Republican judges would be members of the Court of Appeals." (18) The five remaining vacancies (Chief Judge and associate judges) were filled in 1870 by special election. (19) Sanford Church defeated Henry Selden for Chief Judge. (20) There were only four ballots for associate judges. (21) The members of the new court therefore were: Sanford Church as Chief Judge, with William Allen, Rufus Peckham, Martin Grover, Charles Rapallo, Charles Andrews and Charles Folger as associate judges. (22)

    Rather than impose the existing backlog of cases (approximately 800 pending appeals) on the newly created court, a Commission on Appeals was created under the 1869 Constitution to deal with the backlog, thus allowing the new Court of Appeals to start with a fresh docket. (23) "The commission consisted of five commissioners--the four judges elected statewide to the old court, with a fifth commissioner appointed by the Governor." (24)

    The commission's "tenure was limited to three years which, by a later constitutional amendment, was extended by two years." (25) Thus, the Commission on Appeals operated from July 1870 to July 1875. (26) The members of the commission were: Chief Commissioner John Lott, Robert Earl, Alexander Johnson (1870-1873), Ward Hunt (1870-1872), Hiram Gray, William H. Leonard, Charles C. Dwight (1874-1875), and John H. Reynolds (1873-1875). (27) The commission went out of business in 1875 when it resolved the entire backlog of cases. (28)

    In 1889, a "Second Division" of the Court of Appeals was established temporarily to help decide another large backlog of pending cases. (29) Its seven members were designated by Governor David B. Hill. (30) The Second Division was continued through October 1892. (31) In 1891, the state Constitutional Commission, headed by future Court of Appeals Judge William Hornblower (1914), drafted an amendment to abolish the Second Division, which was adopted by the voters. (32)

    Because the workload of the court remained backlogged after the abolition of the Second Division, a constitutional amendment was proposed and adopted by the voters in November 1899 that permitted the Governor, at the request of a majority of the judges of the Court of Appeals, to designate up to four justices of the state supreme court to serve as "additional judges" of the Court of Appeals until the court's calendar was reduced to below two hundred cases. (33) This goal was finally reached in 1921, and since then, no state supreme court justices have been designated under the amendment of 1899 to serve on the Court of Appeals. (34)

    In 1977, a constitutional amendment was adopted by the voters, championed by Chief Judge Breitel, to change New York's election of judges on the Court of Appeals to an appointment process. (35) Jacob D. Fuchsberg and...

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