St. Lawrence County, established in 1802 and situated in northeastern New York, shares its northwestern border with Canada along its namesake, the St. Lawrence River. It is further bounded by Franklin County to the east and the counties of Jefferson, Lewis, Herkimer and Hamilton to the south. The over 2600 square miles within its borders make it the largest county in the state and larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island. It is also one of the most rural.
Founded upon the need of early settlers to transact legal business without traveling long distances, the county was composed of lands taken from Clinton County which were formerly parts of Oneida, Herkimer and Montgomery counties.
The original petition for the erection of the county, presented to the Assembly on February 8, 1802, is set forth below:
The courts, first introduced into what is now New York State by the Dutch, have changed considerably over time, from the highly parochial mechanisms put in place by early settlers to the more structured and organized Unified Court System in existence today. Below are some of the courts, past and present, of New York State.
Court of General Sessions 1683-1847
The Court of General Sessions was a county court having both civil and criminal jurisdiction. In 1691 its jurisdiction was limited to all felony cases not punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Court of Common Pleas 1686-1895
The oldest tribunal in the State of New York, the Court of Common Pleas, was founded in 1686, in the City of New York. By the Act of 1691, this court was established in each county throughout the State. It ceased to exist on December 31, 1895, with the amended State Constitution of 1894.
The Court of Common Pleas handled all actions, real, personal and mixed, where the amount involved exceeded five English pounds. Appeals from its judgments were taken to the Supreme Court.
Supreme Court of Judicature 1691-1896
The New York State Supreme Court of Judicature was established by Chapter 4 of the Laws of 1691 and possessed the same common law jurisdiction as the English Courts of King's Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer. It was continued under the 1777 Constitution.
Court of Chauncery 1701-1847
The New York Court of Chauncery was established in 1701 and was the highest court in the State from 1701-1847. It had jurisdiction on cases of equity and served as an appellate tribunal for cases appealed from the New York State Supreme Court.
It was abolished in 1847 by the New York Constitutional Convention of 1846. Its equity jurisdiction was transferred to the New York State Supreme Court and its appellate jurisdiction was transferred to the New York Court of Appeals.
Court of Appeals - 1847 to present
Established in 1847, the New York Court of Appeals is the highest court in the State of New York and sits in the city of Albany. Generally, the Court of Appeals hears appeals from matters decided by each of the four Appellate Divisions of the Supreme Court in the state.
Supreme Court - Appellate Divisions - 1896 to present
The New York Constitution of 1896 created an Appellate Division of the Supreme Court. Divided into four departments to serve as regional intermediate appellate courts, they are the first level of appeal from the courts of original jurisdiction and the highest intermediate appellate courts in the state.
The Appellate Division, First Judicial Department sits in New York City, the Second Judicial Department in Brooklyn, the Third Judicial Department in Albany, and the Fourth Judicial Department in Rochester.
Though certain matters may be appealed directly to the Court of Appeals, the vast majority of appeals from the Supreme Court held in St. Lawrence County and all county level courts in St. Lawrence County are taken to the Appellate Division, Third Department.
Supreme Court - 1691 to present
The 1846 Constitution transferred the equity jurisdiction of the Court of Chauncery to the New York State Supreme Court, which is a state wide trial level court vested with general common law and equity jurisdiction. Although it has unlimited criminal and civil jurisdiction, outside the City of New York the Supreme Court is primarily a court of civil jurisdiction.
Court of Claims - 1817 to present
The New York State Court of Claims is the exclusive court for civil cases seeking damages against the state of New York.
Surrogate's Courts - 1787 to present
These statutory courts were established in 1787. There is a Surrogate's Court in each county which has jurisdiction in matters of probate and the administration of estates within the county. The Surrogate's Court also has concurrent jurisdiction with the Family Court and the Supreme Court over guardianship of the person and property of infants, and concurrent jurisdiction with Family Court over adoption proceedings.
County Courts - 1846 to present
The establishment of a distinct County Court in each county outside New York City was provided for in the Constitution of 1846. The authority of the County Court extends to the prosecution of all crimes committed within the county, but its focus is on felony cases where a sentence in excess of one year may be imposed. The County Court also has limited civil jurisdiction and may hear cases involving amounts that do not exceed $25,000. Additionally, County Court acts as an intermediate appellate court for appeals from the various City, Town and Village Courts within the county.
Family Courts - 1962 to present
By 1961 constitutional amendment, the Family Court replaced what was formally known as the Children's Courts throughout the state. The Family Court handles matters involving children and families including child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency (JD), persons in need of supervision (PINS), adoption, child custody, visitation and support, paternity, domestic violence, and guardianship. It does not, however, have jurisdiction over divorce proceedings as those matters must be filed in the Supreme Court. With the passage in 2017 of the Raise the Age legislation, the Family Court also handles adolescent offenders (AOs) in a dedicated Youth Part which is devoted to hearing criminal matters involving 16 and 17 year olds who, prior to the change in the law, had been charged as adults in the criminal courts.
City, Town and Village Courts
These courts, commonly referred to as 'the courts closest to the people,' are located in municipalities throughout the state. There are currently 61 City Courts outside New York City and nearly 1300 Town and Village Courts.
Each of these courts exercise criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanor and violation level offenses, including traffic tickets. They also exercise limited preliminary jurisdiction over felony offenses.
On the civil side, City Courts have jurisdiction over matters where the monetary amount in dispute does not exceed $15,000 and the Town and Village Courts hear cases involving $3,000 or less, and both handle summary proceedings involving landlord/tenant matters.
In recent years, Specialty Courts - or Problem Solving Courts - have been established to give focused attention and to bring a multidisciplinary approach to certain matters. Such courts in St. Lawrence County include the Integrated Domestic Violence Court (IDV), the Judicial Diversion Program (JDP), Drug Treatment Court, and the Family Treatment Court. Other areas of the state may also have an Adolescent Diversion Part, a Community Court, Mental Health Court, Human Trafficking Court, Sex Offense Court, and/or Veterans Court.
The first county courthouse and jail were temporarily housed in the Town of Oswegatchie in barracks abandoned by the British after the Revolutionary War. By this time, the early patroon courts established by the Dutch beginning in 1624, and largely continued during the period of English rule from 1664 through the Revolutionary War, had given way to the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions. Judge Nathan Ford presided over the first session of court in the newly formed county, which was convened on the first Tuesday of June 1802. Associate Justices were John Tibbits, Jr. and Stillman Foot, and the County Clerk was Louis Hasbrouck.
Efforts to erect a new courthouse and jail in the Village of Ogdensburg were largely accomplished by the end of 1804. The courthouse was a plain rectangular building with a belfry, and the first session of court was held there in November of that year. Difficulty traveling to Ogdensburg from the outer reaches of the county, especially in the winter months, prompted ongoing discussions about moving the county seat to a more central location. Those discussions became more urgent after the destruction of the courthouse by the British in 1813. The first official attempt to move the county seat was defeated in the state legislature in 1818 and again rejected in 1827. However, sufficient political momentum having been gained, Canton became the new county seat in 1828.
Between 1828-1830 a new courthouse, jail and clerk's office, were erected on lands donated by David Judson. The 44'x40' Grecian style courthouse was two stories tall and built of stone. The first floor included a grand jury room and rooms for constables, witnesses and jurors. The second floor was dedicated to a 41'x37' courtroom. The courthouse officially opened on January 8, 1830, and a 24 foot expansion was completed in 1851. This building, more durable than the last, stood for over forty years, until tragedy struck again. In the winter of 1893, the county courthouse was destroyed by fire.
With only the four exterior walls remaining, the building was too damaged to be salvaged. Competition soon surfaced over the location of a new courthouse, with Norwood, Potsdam, Gouverneur and Ogdensburg all vying to claim the county seat. In May 1893, the Board of Supervisors voted to keep it in Canton, and work on yet another courthouse began in April 1894.
Tapping into an abundance of local resources, the new structure was Romanesque in style and built using gray granite from Gouverneur, black limestone from Norwood and accented with Potsdam's red sandstone. A 120 foot tower and two large arches greeted all who entered. Situated above the entrance were the scales of justice. The north end of the first floor of the 121'x70' building accommodated the Surrogate courtroom and the Superintendent of Poor. The semi-circular south end housed the Supervisors' room, which doubled as a grand jury room. Connected to this was a multipurpose room used for committees and served as the District Attorney's Office during terms of court.
The second floor was primarily devoted to a large ornate courtroom measuring 50'x65' with a 23 foot high ceiling. Two trial jury rooms, a judge's room, lawyers room and a library were also provided.
In 1923 it was decided that a new clerk's office should be built and connected to the courthouse. Construction for this purpose began that summer. By early 1925 the clerk's office was nearly completed when, on February 19th, fire struck once again.
Engulfed in flames in 30 minutes, the courthouse was gutted, but the new clerk's office survived with only minor damage.
Five days after the fire, the Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to oversee reconstruction efforts. Among those on the committee were Supreme Court Justice J.C. Crapser and County Judge J.C. Dolan. Reconstruction was completed at a cost of $226,360 and the courthouse was dedicated in June 1926.
The 120 foot tower had to be lowered due to fire damage. The semi-circular end of the building housing the Supervisors' room was enlarged. Otherwise, the first floor layout remained relatively unchanged and became home to the offices of the Treasurer and District Attorney, as well as the Motor Vehicle Department. Evidence of the increased attention to fire resistance can be seen in the tiled walls and floors.
The second floor was completely changed and the courtroom, once already grand, was made more so.
White Vermont marble with green veins was used for the judge's bench, jury box, as wainscoting, and for the rail separating the public from the well of the courtroom. The walls were lined with Italian travertine and marble beams were used to support the 23 foot ceiling which was covered with ornate tiles.
Attention to detail is apparent in the mural along the top of the walls circumscribing the room. A striking portrayal of Lady Justice "Justitia" sits high above the judge's bench, and each wall bears an inscription of a notable legal maxim.
North wall above the bench:
"The foundations of justice are that no one shall suffer wrong then that the public good be promoted."
East wall above the jury box:
"Law is a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in the state commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong."
South wall at the rear of the courtroom:
"He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty."
West wall above the public entrance to the courtroom:
"Equity is the correction of that wherein the law is deficient by reason of its universality."
The 1926 version of the courthouse remains to this day, albeit with improvements. A three story addition was built in 1957 to house the Family Court, District Attorney's Office and other county offices.
In the early 1980s, Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds Richard Ashley and the men in his department fashioned replicas of the light fixtures in the Grand Courtroom lost during the fire of 1925. Those fixtures, closely resembling the originals, remain in use and are as unique as the room they adorn.
Mr. Ashley's talents were many and extended into the area of stained glass. His handiwork can be seen throughout the courthouse complex in the various seals he created for the county and some of its departments.
Ground was broken in 1991 on a replacement to the 1957 addition. Displaced county and court offices were temporarily housed in an old school building in the neighboring town of Madrid. The new addition was completed in 1993 and presently houses the County, Family and Surrogate's Courts, offices for the court clerk, security, stenographers and commissioner of jurors, the District Attorneys' Office and the probation and real property departments.
In 1999 the copper roof of the 1926 courthouse was replaced.
For St. Lawrence County's bicentennial celebration in 2002, Richard Ashley's talents produced a lighted stained glass county seal commemorating the occasion. It is mounted in the foyer of the 1993 courthouse addition.
Court of Common Pleas 1802-1846
Nathan Ford, 1802-1820
David A. Ogden, 1820-1824
Aaron Hackley, Jr., 1823
John Fine, 1824-1825
David A. Ogden, 1825-1829
John Fine, 1829-1838
Horace Allen, 1843-1846
John Fine, 1843-1846
Supreme Court Justices 1853-present
Amaziah B. James, 1853-1869
William H. Sawyer, 1870-1877
Charles O. Tappan, 1877-1891
Leslie W. Russell, 1891-1905
Ledyard P. Hale, 1905-1907
John M. Kellogg, 1908-1921
John C. Crapser, 1922-1943
Ellsworth C. Lawrence, 1944-1946 (Malone)
Andrew W. Ryan, 1947-1953 (Plattsburgh)
Paul D. Graves, 1954-1972
Edmund L. Shea, 1972-1984
Michael W. Duskas, 1985-1993
David Demarest, 1994-2015
Mary M. Farley, 2016-present
County Judges 1847-present
Edwin Dodge, 1847
William C. Brown, 1855
Henry L. Knowles, 1863
Charles O. Tappan, 1871
Leslie W. Russell, 1877
John M. Kellogg, 1883-1895
Theodore H. Swift, 1895-1901
Ledyard P. Hale, 1901-1908
Clarence S. Ferris, 1908
Edmund L. Shea, 1967-1972
Michael W. Duskas, 1973-1983
Eugene L. Nicandri, 1985-2004
Jerome J. Richards, 2005-present
Special County Judges 1854-1879
William H. Wallace, 185x-54
William H. Sawyer, 1856-57
Ed Crary, 1858
Harvey D. Smith, 1858-59
Edward H. Neary, 1860
Ed Crary, 1861-63
Samuel B.M. Bechwith, 1864
Edward H. Neary, 1867-75
Vasco P. Abbott, 1876-1882
Gerritt Conger, 1882-1897
Arthur T. Johnson, 1897-1909
George W. Fuller 1909
Matthew Perkins, 1802
Andrew McCollom, 1809-1813
George Boyd, 1812
Gouvernor Ogden, 1813-1820
Silas Wright, Jr., 1821-1823
Horace Allen, 1824-1840
James Reddington, 1840-1844
Charles G. Myers, 1844-1847
Benjamin B. Baldwin, 1847-1855
James Reddington, 1855-1859
Harvey D. Smith, 1859-1863
Stillman Foote, 1863-1877
D.A. Johnson, 1877-1883
V.P. Abbott, 1880-1893
John A. Vance, 1893
Kathleen M. Rogers, 1989-2014
John F. Richey, 2015-present
Amos Benedict, Samuel Whittsley, Jesse L. Billings and Ela Collins
- while St. Lawrence, Lewis and Jefferson counties were one district
John Scott, 1819
Bishop Perkins, 1821
J.W. Grant, 1840
William A. Dart, 1845
Charles G. Myers, 1847 and 1851
Thomas V. Russell, 1853-1860
B.H. Vary, 1860-1896
Leslie W. Russell, 1869-1872
J.R. Brinkerhoff, 1872-1878
L.C. Lang, 1881-1885
Charles A. Kellogg, 1885-1894
Ledyard P. Hale, 1894-1900
George W. Hurlbut, 1900-1904
Clarence S. Ferris, 1904-1908
John C. Crapser, 1908
Charles Gardner, 1988-1991
Richard V. Manning, 1992-1995
Jerome J. Richards, 1996-2004
Gary W. Miles (Acting), 2005
Nicole M. Duve, 2006-2013
Mary E. Rain, 2014-2017
Gary M. Pasqua, 2018-present
Special thanks to each of the following for their assistance in gathering the historical information and photographs for this website:
Linda Casserly, Canton Town Historian
Jean Marie Martell, St. Lawrence County Historical Association
Michael Cunningham, St. Lawrence County Director of Governmental Services and Information Technology
Richard Ashley, Retired St. Lawrence County Buildings and Grounds Supervisor
Durant, Samuel W. and Pierce, H.B. History of St. Lawrence Co., New York. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1878.
Perkins, Wendell. "Temple of Justice - Seat of Government, An Abbreviated History of the St. Lawrence County Courthouse." The Quarterly, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April 1983: 3-10.
Chester, Alden. Legal and Judicial History of New York, Vol. III. New York: National Americana Society, 1911.
Brooks, James W. History of the Court of Common Pleas of the City and County of New York. New York: Press of Werne, Sanford & CO., Published by Subscription, 1896.