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Court Records in the State Archives


The New York State Archives holds over 10,000 cubic feet of records of trial and appellate courts, dating from the 1660s to the 1990s. The State Archives holds almost all surviving records of trial and appellate courts exercising jurisdiction throughout the colony and state of New York during the period 1665-1847. The State Archives acquires post-1847 records of certain appellate courts, including the State Court of Appeals and to a lesser extent, the Second (Brooklyn) and Third (Albany) Departments of the Supreme Court Appellate Division.

This pathfinder identifies the courts from which the State Archives has acquired records and discusses the most effective means of identifying and accessing the records of each.

Old State House, Albany, built 1835-1842

Court of Assizes (1665-1683)

The Court of Assizes for the Colony of New York was established in 1665 under the Duke’s Laws. It served as the colony’s high court until 1683, hearing major civil and criminal cases as both a court of original jurisdiction and a court of appeals. The court ruled on matters of equity when no applicable law existed. The court was comprised of the Governor and Council, but also included varying numbers of justices from courts throughout the colony. The court exercised both legislative and judicial powers.

Court of Assizes (1665-1863) finding aids 
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. Follow this link to read descriptions of records series that were created by or related to the Supreme Court of Judicature.

Court of Chancery (1683-1847)

The Court of Chancery existed in New York colony/state from 1683 to 1847. The court possessed jurisdiction in matters of equity rather than law. Equity is a body of doctrine and remedies designed to remove obstructions to justice resulting from the inability of the common-law courts to provide an adequate remedy for every type of grievance or claim. The court held exclusive jurisdiction in matters involving trusteeships, mortgages, mercantile law, women's property rights, and family property settlements.

The Court of Chancery could assist the common-law courts in attaining a fair result and in enforcing its judgments by ordering specific performance of a contract, the appearance of witness or disclosure of evidence (by writ of subpoena), the discovery from a defendant of facts or documents (by bill of discovery), the prohibition of acts by a defendant injurious to a complainant (by writ of injunction), and compliance with a judgment of a common-law court. The Court of Chancery, unlike the common-law courts, did not award damages, except in limited circumstances.

Court of Chancery (1683-1847) finding aids
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. Follow this link to read descriptions of record series that were created by or relate directly to the Court of Chancery.

Supreme Court of Judicature (1691-1847)

The Court of Chancery existed in New York colony/state from 1683 to 1847. The court possessed jurisdiction in matters of equity rather than law. Equity is a body of doctrine and remedies designed to remove obstructions to justice resulting from the inability of the common-law courts to provide an adequate remedy for every type of grievance or claim. The court held exclusive jurisdiction in matters involving trusteeships, mortgages, mercantile law, women's property rights, and family property settlements.

Among the justices of the Supreme Court of Judicature were such eminent figures as John Jay, James Kent, and Daniel D. Tompkins. Attorneys practicing before the court included Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Martin Van Buren, and William H. Seward.  The Court heard some cases which became famous in American legal history: the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735, the criminal contempt trial of Samuel S. Frear in 1803, the Livingston steamboat cases, and the libel suits brought by James Fenimore Cooper against Thurlow Weed and others.

Supreme Court of Judicature (1691-1847) finding aids
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. Follow this link to read descriptions of record series that were created by or relate directly to the Supreme Court of Judicature.

Publications
"Duly and 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: A Joint Publication of the New York State Court of Appeals and The New York State Archives and Records Administration, 1991.
This joint publication of the New York State Court of Appeals and the New York State Archives tells the history of the New York Supreme Court and its predecessors, from colonial times until 1847. It is an essential guide to pre-1847 common-law court records in New York State. The State Archives holds all surviving records kept or filed by the clerks of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Albany (1797-1847), Utica (1807-1847), and Geneva (1829-1847).

Prerogative Court and Court of Probates (1665-1823)

Before the establishment of the New York State Surrogate’s Court system in 1787, jurisdiction over probate matters was exercised by the colonial Prerogative Court and its successor, the State Court of Probates. These were centralized courts with jurisdiction in probate matters that extended to all of New York. The State Archives holds records of the Prerogative Court for the period 1665-1783. The Court of Probates was established in 1778, with jurisdiction over areas of the state not occupied by the British. It continued to function, albeit with limited jurisdiction after 1787, until 1823. The State Archives holds records of the Court of Probates for the period 1778-1823. Most of these records are wills, but the State Archives also holds a limited quantity of other probate records.

Finding aids
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. You can search across all finding aids, or browse these selections which provide descriptions of record series that were created by the Prerogative Court or the Court of Probates:

Probate Records Leaflet 
This leaflet identifies and discusses the various courts and offices that have filed, recorded, or maintained probate records in New York since 1665. It describes probate records held by the State Archives, including those of the Prerogative Court and Court of Probates, and lists all known indexes and abstracts of those records.

Probate Records Pathfinder 
This pathfinder, which directs researchers to the best sources for probate records created in New York from the British colonial period to the present, includes records of the Prerogative Court and Court of Probates.
 

Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors (1777-1847)

The Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors was established under the state constitution and served as New York's impeachment court and court of last resort between 1777 and 1847. New York's court consisted of the President of the Senate (Lieutenant Governor), the Senators, the Chancellor, and the Judges of the Supreme Court of Judicature, who heard appeals from lower courts. Although legally constituted as one court, in practice it operated as two separate judicial bodies--an impeachment court and a court of last resort.

The names “Court for the Trial of Impeachments” and “Court for the Correction of Errors” or, as it was often called in the nineteenth century, “Court of Errors,” were used separately in legal documents and laws as well as in popular parlance. In its two roles the court followed different rules and procedures and maintained separate records. No impeachment proceedings occurred during the life of the court and therefore no records of impeachment trials exist. Existing records of appeals or “cases in error” are in the State Archives.

Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors (1777-1847) finding aids 
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. Follow this link to read descriptions of record series that were created by or relate directly to the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and Correction of Errors.

Court of Appeals (1847-present)

The 1846 State constitution abolished the Court of Errors and transferred its functions as a court of last resort to a newly established Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals remains New York State's highest court and court of last resort with appellate jurisdiction only. It hears cases on appeal from other appellate courts and sometimes from trial courts. Its review is generally limited to questions of law; in capital cases it may rule on both law and fact. The Court of Appeals also reviews determinations of the Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Court of Appeals (1847-present) finding aids 
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. Follow this link to read descriptions of record series that were created by or relate directly to the Court of Appeals.

Appellate Division of the Supreme Court (1896-present)

When the Court of Appeals was established in 1846, intermediate appellate jurisdiction was lodged in eight coordinate appellate tribunals. By the late nineteenth century, the intermediate system of appellate review had taken the form of nine General Terms, five in the Supreme Court and four in the Superior City Courts. The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court is the outgrowth of the General Term of the Supreme Court, which lasted from 1870 until the 1894 Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention of 1894, the General Term was abolished and replaced by the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. The Appellate Division was conceived as a court with jurisdiction to provide appellate review for most cases, leaving the Court of Appeals free to declare and settle major questions of law.

Appellate Division of the Supreme Court (1896-present) finding aids 
Finding aids provide detailed information about individual record series held by the State Archives. Follow this link to read descriptions of record series that were created by or relate directly to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.