Brooklyn Boro

State transferring court records to make them more accessible

January 5, 2017 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. Photo courtesy of the Office of Court Administration
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The New York State Unified Court System is transferring nearly 2,000 boxes and bound volumes of physical court records — records that date back to the colonial times — to the New York State Archives so they can be made available to the public at a facility in Albany, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia and State Archivist Thomas Ruller announced on Thursday.

“These historic court documents are a state and national treasure, providing invaluable insight into New York’s rich legal, social and cultural history over the course of three centuries,” said DiFiore. “I am so pleased that these vintage records will now be part of the voluminous collection of the New York State Archives, which is dedicated to organizing and preserving the state’s historical records, and where these prized court documents will be readily accessible to researchers, scholars, teachers and the general public.”

The archives is a unit of the state Education Department that is responsible for managing and preserving state government records documenting the history of New York. The transfer is expected to be completed next week and documents will be available at the Cultural Education Center in Albany.

“The State Archives cares for more than 200 million documents in its collections,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa. “These historical court records are an important addition to the State Archives collection. I encourage New York’s students, adults and educators alike to use these documents to learn about the legal, social and cultural history of New York.”

For the past century, these old court records have been stored in the Hall of Records at 31 Chambers St. in Lower Manhattan. Since 1942, they have been under the care of the New York County Clerk. The records comprise mostly civil case documents from the Supreme Court of Judicature, a common-law court founded in 1691, and the predecessor to the current Supreme Court of New York state; and the Court of Chancery, an equity court established in 1683, whose jurisdiction was merged into that of the new Supreme Court when it was created in 1847.

The State Archives already holds the extensive records of the upstate offices of the pre-1847 statewide trial courts, which were transferred to the Archives by the Court of Appeals in 1982. The current transfer of records filed in New York City will consolidate in one location all records of the old Supreme Court of Judicature and the Court of Chancery.

The records being transferred to the State Archives represent a virtual “Who’s Who” of early American patriots, many of whom practiced as lawyers or judges in these early courts. Among them are Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Robert R. Livingston, one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence.

These papers and parchments tell the ordinary stories of human conflict, from contract disputes and disagreements over estates to the often tawdry divorce proceedings of early New York (infidelity had to be proved for a court to grant a divorce). These court archives reflect the legal, social, economic and cultural forces at work in New York from the 1600s into the mid-1800s, including changes in the practice of law and the conception of justice.

One of the most important cases documented in this historic collection is that of The King v. John Peter Zenger, a seminal freedom-of- the-press case of the 1730s that influenced early American political thought on the law of libel and the powers of juries.

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