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Court Discusses Subject Matter Jurisdiction


Defendants in three cases challenge the rules promulgated by the Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge that created either the Bronx Criminal Division or Integrated Domestic Violence Part in Supreme Court, which resulted in the transfer of their misdemeanor prosecutions from local criminal courts to Supreme Court for trial. A New York Criminal Lawyer said that although they did not object to the transfer procedure in the trial court, they argued on appeal that Supreme Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over their trials and that the rules violate the New York Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Law.

The first case:
In January 2007, defendant was charged by misdemeanor information filed in New York City Criminal Court, Kings County, with multiple counts of aggravated harassment in the second degree after he contacted his former paramour by telephone 62 times in one evening and repeatedly threatened her with physical harm. Defendant and the complainant had been involved in multiple prior Family Court cases regarding disputes about their two children. After his arraignment in New York City Criminal Court, the case was transferred to the IDV Part in Kings County Supreme Court where a nonjury trial was conducted. Defendant was convicted of three counts of attempted aggravated harassment in the second degree and sentenced to concurrent terms of one year’s probation. He was also directed to participate in a variety of domestic violence accountability and other programs.

The second case:
In October 2005, defendant was charged in a Misdemeanor Information filed in New York City Criminal Court, Bronx County; with various class A misdemeanors and harassment in the second degree, a violation, resulting from a domestic violence altercation with his wife. After arraignment, his case was transferred to the BCD and a nonjury trial was conducted. Defendant was acquitted of the misdemeanor offenses but convicted of the harassment charge and sentenced to 15 days in jail.

The third case:
Defendant was charged in an Information with the misdemeanor offenses of obstructing governmental administration and assault in the third degree, as well as one count of harassment in the second degree, a violation, as a result of disruptive behavior during a parole hearing. A Bronx Criminal Lawyer said that following his arraignment in New York City Criminal Court, Bronx County, defendant’s case was transferred to the BCD for a nonjury trial in August 2006. He was convicted of attempted assault in the third degree and harassment for which he received 90-day and 15-day jail sentences, respectively.

Did the Supreme Court lack jurisdiction over the subject matter?
Although none of the defendants in these cases timely objected either in New York City Criminal Court or Supreme Court to the transfer of their misdemeanor cases, we may consider their arguments in this Court because each defendant contends that Supreme Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to try his case. If Supreme Court-acting through the IDV Part or the BCD-did not possess the authority to conduct these proceedings, this would be a fundamental, nonwaivable defect in the mode of proceedings that could be raised by defendants on their direct appeal despite their failure to comply with preservation requirements. Accordingly, the herein court must address defendants’ jurisdictional arguments on the merits.

On the Authority to Issue the IDV and BCD Directives:
Article VI of the New York Constitution-the Judiciary Article-created a “unified court system for the state” and vested the Chief Judge with the authority to administer the system, with the assistance of the Administrative Board. Together, a Brooklyn Criminal Lawyer said that they are empowered to appoint a chief administrator to “supervise the administration and operation of the unified court system” and exercise powers delegated by the Chief Judge. The Chief Judge may “establish standards and administrative policies for general application throughout the state,” which shall be submitted to the Court of Appeals, together with the recommendations of the Administrative Board, and approved by the Court.
Courts have previously held that the constitutional requirement that the Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge consult with the Administrative Board and receive approval from the Court of Appeals before implementing broad-based administrative policies ensures critical “multistage, multiperson review” and is therefore an indispensable component of the constitutional scheme. When administrative authority is exercised in conformity with the consultation and approval requirements, UCS administrators possess broad express and implied powers to take whatever actions are necessary for the proper discharge of their responsibilities.
The Judiciary Article also specifically addresses the reassignment of cases to and from Supreme Court.
The authority of UCS administrators to transfer cases to and from Supreme Court is also recognized in statute. Judiciary Law explicitly authorizes the Chief Judge, in consultation with the Administrative Board and with the consent of the Court of Appeals, to “establish standards and administrative policies for general application to the unified court system throughout the state, including but not limited to standards and administrative policies relating to transfer of judges and causes among the courts.” Thus, the Legislature included the transfer of cases as one of the administrative actions that could be taken by the Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge.

Accordingly, the court finds that UCS administrators, based on the Supreme Court’s transfer powers and the broad administrative authority vested, were authorized to promulgate the IDV and BCD directives. Before the directives were issued, the Administrative Board was consulted and consent was obtained from the Court of Appeals. And although the First Department majority suggested that the BCD directives merged the Supreme Court and the New York City Criminal Court, eviscerating the latter, in reality the BCD and IDV directives accomplished only two things: they created new “parts” in Supreme Court and provided that certain cases be transferred to those parts. Both actions were permissible under the relevant constitutional and statutory provisions.

As for the exercise of transfer authority, there has long been a question concerning whether the drafters intended to require statutory authorization before Supreme Court may transfer to itself cases arising in other courts. But even assuming that the legislative action was necessary, the statutory predicate for the rules at issue appears in Judiciary Law, which permits the Chief Judge to transfer cases between courts to further the efficient administration of justice. The provision contains no language preventing the transfer of misdemeanor cases to Supreme Court.
On the issue of determining whether the Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge exceeded their constitutional and statutory powers when adopting the BCD directives, the Legislature certainly exercises significant control over the regulation of practice and procedure in the courts. But article VI, § 30 does not address or purport to curtail the transfer authority granted in article VI, § 19(a) or the administrative power vested in UCS administrators in article VI, § 28. And in drafting Judiciary Law § 211, the Legislature made clear that it does not view the transfer of cases to be strictly a matter of practice and procedure-a conclusion that is especially appropriate given that UCS administrators may decide to reassign cases to alleviate court congestion (the impetus for the BCD directives). Section 211-entitled “administrative functions of the chief judge of the court of appeals”-includes an express reference to the transfer of cases between courts in the category of “standards and administrative policies” that the Chief Judge is directed to establish. The statute does not characterize transfer as a practice and procedure issue, much less indicate that policies relating to reassignment of cases fall within the sole province of the Legislature.

As indicated in a landmark case, the Legislature’s decision to classify certain matters as administrative in the statutory delineation of the powers of UCS administrators is compelling evidence that it intended to recognize their authority over such matters.

Although the creation of the BCD certainly impacted the work of the New York City Criminal Court, the court is not persuaded that its role has been restricted to the point that it has ceased to effectively fulfill the role assigned under the New York Constitution. Nor, in any event, did UCS administrators exceed their authority and impermissibly tread in the legislative domain when they issued the BCD or IDV directives.

Accordingly, the herein court declines to set aside the rules on the aforesaid basis.
On the issue of Supreme Court Jurisdiction:

There is no question that the Criminal Procedure Law generally contemplates that violations and misdemeanors will be tried in local criminal courts and that felonies, which may be initiated by the filing of an information or complaint but must ultimately be prosecuted by indictment or SCI, will be tried in the superior courts-County Court or Supreme Court. But the issue presented in this case is not whether misdemeanor cases are typically tried in local criminal courts or even whether, when adjudicated in Supreme Court, they are usually charged in an indictment-the answer to both of these questions is undoubtedly “yes.” This dispute concerns the extent to which Supreme Court can exercise subject matter jurisdiction over misdemeanor trials.

The New York Constitution provides: “The Supreme Court shall have general original jurisdiction in law and equity and the appellate jurisdiction herein provided”. Under this provision, Supreme Court is competent to entertain all causes of action unless its jurisdiction has been specifically proscribed.

Similarly, under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, Supreme Court may not hear cases in which exclusive jurisdiction has been conferred on the federal courts. And Supreme Court is subject to the same substantive limitations imposed on other courts.
Like every other court in New York State, Supreme Court may not convict a defendant of a felony absent compliance with the indictment and waiver of indictment provisions in article I, § 6 of the New York Constitution.

But, subject to the limitations discussed above, the New York Constitution vests Supreme Court with the power to hear any case that any other court in the UCS could hear, which is why the Supreme Court is referred to as possessing both general and concurrent jurisdiction over all causes of actions-hence the designation “Supreme” Court. And, in contrast to article I, § 6 which requires indictment of felony charges (or waiver of indictment and agreement to be prosecuted on SCI) before any court may try a defendant for a felony, there is no provision in the Constitution that imposes any similar limitation on the power of a court, including Supreme Court, to adjudicate misdemeanor charges.

Defendants nonetheless assert that the Legislature has imposed statutory restrictions on Supreme Court that prevent trials of misdemeanor charges from being entertained unless they are contained in an indictment or SCI after waiver of indictment. According to defendants, although local criminal courts such as the New York City Criminal Court may try unindicted misdemeanor cases, Supreme Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over those matters and, in this respect, its ability to exercise concurrent jurisdiction with other UCS courts has been curtailed.

If such were in fact the case, a significant constitutional issue would be presented because the court has made clear in other contexts that “the Legislature cannot by statute deprive Supreme Court of one particle of its jurisdiction, derived from the Constitution, although it may grant concurrent jurisdiction to some other court”.

Addressing the precise issue raised in the instant appeals-whether Supreme Court may try an unindicted misdemeanor-there is authority for the proposition that it does and that any effort by the Legislature to “abridge, limit or qualify” the broad jurisdiction conferred under article VI, § 7 would be “unconstitutional and void”.

After review of the Criminal Procedure Law provisions on which defendants rely, the court concludes that the Legislature has not adopted statutes that purport to oust Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to try unindicted misdemeanor cases and the court, therefore, need not determine whether the Legislature could take such action, had that been its intent.

The court concludes that CPL 210.05 can properly be read as a nonjurisdictional limitation on prosecutorial authority. Where the language of a statute is susceptible of two constructions, the courts will adopt that which avoids injustice, hardship, constitutional doubts or other objectionable results.

The general rule is that the Legislature may not curtail the concurrent subject matter jurisdiction vested in Supreme Court. If the court was to adopt defendants’ view that CPL 210.05 divests Supreme Court of its power to try unindicted misdemeanor cases-cases that the New York City Criminal Court, another UCS court, is permitted to hear-a serious question would be raised about the constitutional validity of CPL 210.05.

Faced with the choice between an interpretation that is consistent with the Constitution (and the jurisdictional statutes in the CPL) and one that creates a potential constitutional infirmity, courts are to choose the former.

Given its language and legislative history, the court rejects the notion that CPL 210.05 precludes Supreme Court from exercising trial jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases concurrent with other UCS courts.

Thereafter, defendants challenge the transfer of their cases on equal protection grounds. This contention also lacks merit because defendants have not identified any respect in which they received less favorable treatment in Supreme Court than they would have received had their nonjury trials been conducted in the New York City Criminal Court. The herein court, therefore, holds that Supreme Court had subject matter jurisdiction over defendants’ misdemeanor cases.
The administrators of the Unified Court System were empowered under the State Constitution and the Judiciary Law to adopt said rules and that Supreme Court-a court of general, concurrent jurisdiction-had the power to adjudicate the misdemeanor cases.

Court procedures are difficult to understand. Filing charges in the wrong court may cause losing someone’s right to compensation. Thus, it is vital that you choose the right lawyer to represent you. At Stephen Bilkis & Associates, we have highly competent and skilled lawyers at your service. Talk to our NY Domestic Violence Lawyers or our NY Criminal Lawyers for a free legal advice.

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