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Historical Court Records in the New York State Archives
The New York State Archives acquires, preserves, and provides access to the permanently valuable records of New York State government. Including the 2017 transfer of many early court records from the New York County Clerk’s Office, the State Archives holds nearly 10,000 cubic feet of pre-1847 trial court records and post-1847 appellate court records, including those of the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
1982 Transfer of Pre-1847 Trial Court Records from Court of Appeals to State Archives
In 1982 the Court of Appeals transferred to the State Archives a large collection of pre-1847 trial court records, which the court had acquired when the state’s court system was reorganized in 1847. Those records had originally been filed in the upstate offices of the Supreme Court of Judicature, a civil court of common-law jurisdiction established in 1691, and in the offices of the Court of Chancery, a court possessing equity jurisdiction, established in 1683 and reestablished in 1704. Before 1847 there were Supreme Court clerk’s offices in Albany (1797), Utica (1807), and Canandaigua/Geneva (1829), as well as in New York City. Trials were held in each county, convenient for parties and witnesses, but documents were filed in one of the court clerk’s offices. Both the Supreme Court and the Court of Chancery were divided into eight circuits in 1823, each circuit covering multiple counties and having its own judge, who usually presided over both courts. The First Circuit included New York City and surrounding counties, while the other circuits were located upstate. The Chancellor continued to handle some cases and hear appeals from the Chancery circuits.
Also transferred to the State Archives by the Court of Appeals in 1982 and 1992 were records of the Court of Probates, which had general jurisdiction over the estates of deceased persons before establishment of the county-level Surrogate’s Court in 1787. The Court of Probates continued to exercise certain jurisdiction until it was abolished in 1823. Since then all probate records are created and held by the Surrogate’s Court.
2017 Transfer of Pre-1847 Trial Court Records from New York County Clerk’s Office to New York State Archives
Even after the majority of records of the old Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Chancery were transferred to the State Archives, in 1982, other records of those courts which had originally been filed in New York City continued to be stored there. Those records included many records of the Supreme Court of Judicature, and all records of the First Circuit of the Court of Chancery. After 1910-11 their home was the newly-constructed “Hall of Records” at 31 Chambers Street. After 1942 the records were in the custody of the New York County Clerk. In late 2016 the Unified Court System authorized the transfer of those remaining records of the pre-1847 Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Chancery from the New York County Clerk’s Office to the State Archives in Albany. The records of New York’s early civil courts are now consolidated in one location, 220 years after the regional offices of those courts began to be established in 1797.
Access to Historical Court Records in the State Archives
New York’s court system is complex and has had repeated reorganizations over the 240 years since the adoption of the state’s first constitution in 1777. New York civil courts before 1848 employed very technical forms of documents closely modeled on those used in the English courts. The complex organization of the courts and the technical nature of the records pose challenges to users. The State Archives has a variety of tools and resources to facilitate access to and understanding of the pre-1847 records of the Supreme Court of Judicature and the Court of Chancery. Those tools and resources for court records previously transferred to the State Archives include:
- Online catalog entries on two levels, accessible at www.archives.nysed.gov
- Catalog records for each series (functional grouping) of court records, providing record series title, date span, quantity, and general information about content and organization of the records (including availability of indexes)
- Administrative history of each court, summarizing its history, jurisdiction, and organization
- Published guide to history and records of the Supreme Court of Judicature, available on the website of the Historical Society of the New York Courts
- Court-produced indexes, registers, and docket books that lead the researcher to filed and recorded court documents
The records of the Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Chancery newly transferred from the New York County Clerk’s Office to the State Archives likewise have a variety of access tools:
- Card file indexes to most filed documents
- Electronic databases containing summary data from card file indexes
- Court-produced indexes, registers, and docket books
Summary descriptions of those records will be included in the State Archives’ online catalog soon. Eventually detailed catalog records will be prepared, based on an excellent inventory prepared by staff of the Unified Court System. The electronic databases will be prepared for online access.
A summary list of the records transferred is now available.
Preservation of Historical Court Records in the New York State Archives
The pre-1847 records and files of the Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Chancery date back to the late seventeenth century. Many of them are very fragile. The records are now housed in protective boxes or polyethylene bags. They are stored in the State Archives’ collections storage facility in the Cultural Education Center in the Empire State Plaza, whose environment and security meet or exceed national standards for preservation of archival records. Nevertheless, researchers may be asked to use microfilm copies of records in place of deteriorated originals.
Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Chancery—Jurisdiction
The Supreme Court of Judicature provided judicial remedies inherited from the common-law courts of England, mainly proceedings for recovery of debts or damages, and possession of or title to real or personal property. (The common-law remedies are now authorized by statute and are available in the modern Supreme Court.) The Court of Chancery was a specialized court possessing equity jurisdiction. It handled cases involving complex commercial disputes, and trusteeships for the property of persons needing judicial protection (such as widows, orphans, and insolvent corporations). Chancery also had jurisdiction in marital proceedings, such as divorce. Unlike the pre-1847 county-level civil court, the Court of Common Pleas (which continued to operate in New York City and County only until 1896), both the Supreme and Chancery courts possessed jurisdiction throughout the colony and state of New York. That meant that their orders were binding anywhere in New York. Those two courts with their separate jurisdictions were merged into a reorganized Supreme Court effective July 1, 1847. That court continues today as the state’s court of general jurisdiction, with trial terms in every county and an Appellate Division organized in four Departments.
Importance of Civil Courts and Their Records
From colonial times to the present day, the New York’s civil courts have offered judicial proceedings through which debts may be recovered, contracts enforced, commercial disputes resolved, and injuries to person or property compensated. Special civil court proceedings are available to protect the rights and property of persons. Civil court records provide evidence of the effectiveness of judicial institutions. The records frequently document financial or other interactions between persons that resulted in a dispute, disagreement, or injustice. Linked with other types of archival records, such as deeds, mortgages, censuses, and tax assessment rolls, civil court records can help reveal a profile of the business affairs and property of an individual or a corporation. Historical court records provide especially important evidence of New York’s economy, society, and government for time periods when other records are scarce.
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The State Archives’ research facility, shared with the Manuscripts and Special Collections Unit of the State Library, is located on the 11th floor of the Cultural Education Center in the Empire State Plaza. The research room is open Monday-Saturday, 9:30-4:30 except for official holidays and certain Saturdays in major holiday weekends. Researchers wishing to use records at the Archives are strongly encouraged to search the Archives’ online catalog and to contact Archives staff in advance of a planned visit, in order to identify records of interest. The State Archives also offers a variety of document reproduction services.