The Courts

The court system in New York County (Manhattan Island) traces its origins to 1683 when the provincial assembly approved legislation establishing a Sessions Court in the county. In 1691 the assembly divided the Sessions Court into two separate courts: the Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction over civil cases, typically contract and property disputes; the Court of General Sessions was responsible for all criminal trials except those concerned with capital offenses.

In 1777, after the American Revolution, New York state adopted its first constitution without altering the judicial institutions inherited from the colonial period. The governor of New York appointed the judges on both the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions from among the elected officials of the county: the mayor, deputy mayor, the recorder, and the aldermen were all empowered to serve as justices on either court.

The corruption of political office in New York during the nineteenth century had a corrosive effect on the court system. The aldermen, all of whom were eligible to serve as judges, could no longer be trusted to carry out their duties in an ethical manner and, as a consequence, the state legislature amended the city charter in 1853 to deny aldermen the right to sit on the bench. But corruption continued unabated: the state had earlier, in 1846, adopted a new constitution which had specified that the judiciary would be elected rather than appointed. In subsequent decades the Democratic Party organization, known colloquially as Tammany Hall, controlled the nominations to judicial positions, effectively making election to the bench a reward for past services to the political machine.

In 1855 the legislature enlarged the jurisdiction of the Court of General Sessions to include capital offenses. Until then capital crimes had come solely within the jurisdiction of the New York State Supreme Court. Therefore, from mid-century onwards, the district-attorney could assign a capital offense to either the Court of General Sessions, a municipal court, or to the New York State Supreme Court, a state court. In most cases, however, he sent capital crimes to the Court of General Sessions.

In the 1890s Clarence Lexow, a state senator, chaired the commission that investigated corruption in the city’s police force and simultaneously examined the state of the police courts, tribunals empowered to issue warrants, arraign suspects, and commit persons to jail pending trial. In subsequent years specialized magistrates’ courts began to appear: a women’s court, to deal with prostitution cases, was established in 1910; a traffic court, commercial-frauds court, night court, and children’s court were all created around the turn of the century.