State’s highest court sets up shop in state’s first capital

An actress portrays Sojourner Truth in a re-enactment of her famous case at the Ulster County Courthouse. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

Some 234 years after pyromaniacal Redcoats ended Kingston’s tenure as New York’s capital city, the state’s highest court convened on Wall Street once again to commemorate the bicentennial of the Ulster County Courthouse. 

On Thursday, Nov. 15 the seven-member New York State Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a second-floor courtroom packed with local attorneys and some 130 students from area high schools and Marist College. The one hour session — during which the court heard arguments on several criminal and civil cases — was part of a day-long celebration that featured displays of historic documents and a re-enactment of the court’s most famous moment: Sojourner Truth’s 1828 petition to the court to have her 5-year-old son returned from slavery in Alabama where he had been sold in anticipation of New York’s impending abolition law. 

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“This is a special event, this is a milestone,” said Ulster County Commissioner of Jurors and unofficial court historian Paul T. O’Neill. “In reality, this is a homecoming, hosting the highest court in the state of New York for the first time in 234 years.” 

The current Ulster County Courthouse was completed in 1818, built on the foundations of an earlier courthouse dating back to 1683. A series of additions between 1834 and 1899 expanded it; until 1972, the building held the Ulster County Jail. Today, the courthouse is home to one county and three state Supreme Court judges who preside over hundreds of civil and felony criminal cases each year.  

The courthouse’s rich history was on full display last week with an exhibit that included an original draft of the state Constitution written in the spring of 1777 inside the old courthouse by Founding Father John Jay, who would be elected the Court of Appeals first chief justice. Another display case, organized by the County Clerk’s Office, included an 1828 summons to Truth’s former master, Esopus farmer John Dumont, to appear at the court’s next session and the 1665 peace treaty between Dutch settlers and the Esopus tribe. 

Upstairs in the ceremonial courtroom meanwhile, it was standing room only as students from Kingston High School, Coleman Catholic and half a dozen other area schools and a few dozen local attorneys watched the Court of Appeals at work. Ulster County Bar Association President John DeGasperis said that the special session presented a rare opportunity for working attorneys to observe the state’s highest court. While regular trial courts operate as fact finding bodies to apply the law to a particular set of circumstances, the Court of Appeals uses the state Constitution and legal precedent to interpret complex questions of laws’ meaning and intent. Their ruling become binding on all lower courts in the state. Court of Appeals spokesman Gary Spencer said that the court made visits outside its Albany Chambers once or twice a year.

“Most attorneys can’t afford to take a morning to go up to Albany to listen in on [Court of Appeals] oral arguments,” said DeGasperis. “This is an unusual opportunity for local bar members to hear arguments from the state’s highest court.”

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