Many criminal cases are appealed, usually to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and occasionally there are subsequent appeals from the Appellate Division to the Court of Appeals, the State's highest court. The record on appeal (formerly called a "case") presents to the appellate court the proceedings of the trial court, and legal objections either to the court's jurisdiction or to its proceedings. The record on appeal contains copies of papers filed in the trial court (including the indictment or other instrument by which the case was commenced), a transcript of testimony, and copies of documentary exhibits.
Accompanying the record on appeal are briefs of the attorneys for the appellant and respondent, on which oral arguments were largely based. When appeals are made by prisoners, only a limited number of copies of the record and briefs are filed with the court. Therefore the clerk's set includes a considerable number of criminal appeals not found in the duplicate sets of the records and briefs found in law libraries. Among the records and briefs are cases that were notorious at the time, and are of continuing interest for legal and social history. Script writers for motion pictures or television shows have used records on appeal from New York courts to extract themes and details relating to crime, police work, and court trials.
Archival collections of records and briefs of the Court of Appeals and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court are noted below. In addition, many law libraries around the state hold reference collections of records and briefs from appellate courts. A directory of law library holdings of appellate court records and briefs is Joan T. White and Dawn M. Tybur, comps., Union List of Cases and Points/Records and Briefs in New York State Law Libraries (Buffalo: 1987). This list identifies the libraries holding records and briefs of both State and Federal courts and indicates the date range, format (paper or microform), and loan policy.
The New York State Library holds large collections of records and briefs of the Appellate Division (1896+), of the old General Term of the Supreme Court (1847-1895), and of the Court of Appeals (1847+). (The Library's older records and briefs are in storage, and retrieval is subject to delay.)
Starting in 1984 the records and briefs of all four departments of the Supreme Court Appellate Division have been reproduced on microfiche by the Office of Court Administration. Paper copies of the records and briefs are no longer retained by the Appellate Division. The microfiche publication (excepting the copies of restricted cases) is available in the New York State Library and in several law libraries around the state. Once an appeal is decided paper copies of the record and briefs are remitted (returned) to the trial court; those copies may be in the county clerk's office (for county-level trial courts) or the court clerk's office.
New York State appellate court decisions and opinions are published in the official New York Reports (abbrev. "N.Y.," Court of Appeals cases, 1847+) or the Appellate Division Reports (abbrev. "A.D.," Supreme Court Appellate Division cases, 1896+). Legally-significant decisions in the lower courts of record (i.e. courts having a clerk and seal) are published in the Miscellaneous Reports (abbrev. "Misc.," 1892+). All three publications commenced their second series in 1956. The citation to a case consists of the volume number, reporter, series, and starting page number (e.g. 13 A.D. 2d 545).
Official law reporting began in New York in 1804, and unofficial, commercial reporting of court cases about the same time. Currently the West Publishing Company publishes all officially-reported New York cases in the New York Supplement (1888+, with retrospective reports of Court of Appeals cases back to 1847), and Court of Appeals cases in a multi-state reporter titled the North Eastern Reporter (1885+). During the nineteenth century both official and unofficial court reports were known by the names (or abbreviated names) of their reporters (e.g. "Johns." for "Johnson," reporter for the Court of Chancery, 1814-23).
Law libraries hold numerous tools legal digests, encyclopedias, etc. that assist researchers in locating reported cases. The most comprehensive index to reported cases is the plaintiff-defendant and defendant-plaintiff tables in Abbott New York Digest. This work is a multi-volume summary of New York case law, arranged by subject, now in its fourth chronological series. The best current guide to locating New York reported cases is found in Ellen M. Gibson, New York Legal Research Guide (Buffalo: William S. Hein & Co., 1988), pp. 145-81 (has a complete list of official and unofficial published case reports).
Supreme Court Appellate Division (1896+)
Since 1896 the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court has been the principal first-level appeals court in New York. The Appellate Division is organized in four departments, headquartered in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Albany, and Rochester. The Appellate Division has jurisdiction over appeals from the trial courts of original criminal and civil jurisdiction and from administrative bodies.
First Department (Manhattan)
The First Department is comprised of New York and Bronx Counties. The official depository for records and briefs of the First Department (Manhattan) is the Library of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. (That facility is open only to members of the Association.) The State Archives holds the following two related series:
B0815 Trial Transcripts from New York County Criminal Courts, 1883-1927 (425 microfilm reels)
These transcripts were produced for appeals to higher courts. The great majority of these transcripts are for trials in the Court of General Sessions, 1886-1927 (about 3100 cases). A few transcripts are for cases tried by the New York Supreme Court, 1896-1922 (160 cases); the Court of Oyer and Terminer, 1886-1895 (about 25 cases); and other, lower tribunals (e.g. Magistrates Court). There are no transcripts for the vast majority of criminal cases that were not appealed.
Access and Restrictions: The State Archives holds the master negative microfilm and can produce user copies of individual reels on request, at cost of duplication. The Library of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, was responsible for producing the microfilm and holds a complete set of the film for public use. Both John Jay College and the State Archives have copies of the paper indexes to the cases; there are indexes to defendants, judges, attorneys, and charges, as well as a master index by assigned case number. An unpublished guide to the collection is available: Eli Faber, comp., "Trial Transcripts of the County of New York (1883-1927); A Historical Introduction and Index to the Microfilm Collection" (1985).
J0016 New York [County] Court of General Sessions of the Peace Records on Appeal Remitted from the Supreme Court General Term, Supreme Court Appellate Division First Department, or Court of Appeals, ca. 1884-1916 (384 vols.)
These records on appeal are printed books containing copies of trial court documents, transcripts of testimony, documentary exhibits, etc.; and signed orders of the appellate court indicating the decision on the appeal and remitting (returning) the record to the Court of General Sessions. These volumes were transferred to the State Archives in 1990 by the Library of the Supreme Court (New York County) Criminal Division.
Access: These volumes are arranged by a sequential volume and case number, assigned by the court after the records were remitted. The individual cases are not in any discernible order, chronological or otherwise, and the Archives has no index to or list of the cases.
Second Department (Brooklyn)
The Second Department embraces the counties on Long Island and Staten Island and five counties in the lower Hudson Valley. The State Archives holds the court clerk's set of records and briefs for 1896-1935. Those for later decades have been destroyed, but duplicate sets exist in a few law libraries. The clerk of the Second Department holds records and briefs for recent years.
J2004 Records and Briefs, ca. 1896-1935 (750 c.f.) Restricted in part.
These records and briefs were acquired by Queens Borough Public Library after the Second Department had disposed of them. The State Archives acquired them in 1992.
Access and Restrictions: These records and briefs include both criminal and civil cases. Some categories of cases are restricted. The records and briefs are practically inaccessible because they are disarranged and unindexed.
Third Department (Albany)
The Third Department embraces twenty-eight counties in eastern, northern, and central New York. Besides the usual appeals from trial courts, the Appellate Division Third Department has a substantial business of appeals from quasi-judicial determinations of administrative officers, such as the Workers' Compensation Board and the Commissioner of Education.
J2001 Records and Briefs on Appeal, 1896-1983 (7413 vols.) Restricted in part.
The State Archives holds the court clerk's set of records and briefs for cases appealed to, or matters decided by, the Appellate Division in this department. Starting in 1984 the records and briefs of the Third Department have been preserved on microfiche, which is available in law libraries around the state. For minutes and case registers of the Appellate Division Third Department, see Guide to Records in the New York State Archives (Albany: 1993), pp. 399-400.
Access and Restrictions: The Archives holds case lists which provide access to the volumes of records and briefs for 1937-1938 and 1969-1982. Access to the volumes for other years is difficult; in order for a search to be made, the researcher must supply the title of the case and the date of argument before the court. Certain categories of cases are restricted.
Fourth Department (Rochester)
The Fourth Department embraces twenty-two counties in western, central, and northern New York. The records and briefs of the Supreme Court Appellate Division (Fourth Department) are retained by the clerk of the court. The court also holds records and briefs of the Supreme Court General Term, ca. 1850-1895, from judicial districts embraced by the present Fourth Department.
Supreme Court General Term (1847-1895)
The predecessor to the Appellate Division was the General Term of the Supreme Court. Between 1847 and 1870 the General Term was held in each of the eight judicial districts. In 1870 the number of General Terms was reduced from eight to four. The General Term was empowered to hear appeals from judgments from the Supreme Court's trial terms in each county; from orders and decisions of Supreme Court justices; and from the County Courts and the Mayor's and Recorder's courts in cities.
County clerks maintained the minutes of the Supreme Court General Term when it sat in their counties. A few law libraries around the state have collections of cases and briefs from the General Term, but apparently no single collection is complete, and all collections put together may not yield a complete set. Summary information on holdings of General Term cases and briefs is available in White and Tybur, comps., Union List of Cases and Points/Records and Briefs in New York State Law Libraries.
Supreme Court of Judicature (1691-1847)
During the early nineteenth century very few proceedings and convictions of criminal courts were reviewed by higher courts, because common and statute law strictly limited the convicted person's right to such review. The review was initiated by obtaining a writ which, depending on the circumstances, ordered the trial court to transmit to the Supreme Court a certified copy of the proceedings (writ of certiorari) or the record of judgment or conviction in a court of record (writ of error), or to transfer custody of the defendant (writ of habeas corpus).
The record from the lower court was attached to the writ of error or writ of certiorari and returned to the higher court for its determination or review. Written briefs, if there were any, were filed separately. Hence there was nothing that resembles the printed and bound "cases and points" or "record and briefs" maintained by the appellate courts starting around 1850, and continuing to the present.
The New York State Archives holds several record series, transferred from the Court of Appeals, containing thousands of writs of error and certiorari and the returns thereto. These documents were originally filed in the upstate offices of the Supreme Court of Judicature during the period 1797-1847. The New York County Clerk's Office holds the same types of documents that were filed in the New York City office of the Supreme Court prior to 1847.
For further information on pre-1847 records of the Supreme Court, including records of criminal cases transferred to or reviewed by that court, see "Duely & Constantly Kept": A History of the New York Supreme Court, 1691-1847 and An Inventory of Its Records (Albany, Utica, and Geneva Offices), 1797-1847 (Albany: 1991) and Guide to Federal, County and Municipal Archives in the City of New York (New York: 1989).
Since 1824 the county-level courts (Court of Common Pleas prior to 1847, County Court since 1847) have had the authority to review criminal and civil cases appealed from the town justice and village police courts. Appeal papers are occasionally filed with the county clerk, though properly the papers should have been remitted to the lower court after the appeal was concluded.