Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Suffolk County Supreme Court

Suffolk County Supreme Court


Riverhead: One Court Street, Riverhead, NY 11901

Central Islip: 400 Carleton Avenue, Central Islip, NY 11722


The history of the Suffolk County Courthouse predates the United States itself. The first County Courthouse was built in 1729 in what is now known as Riverhead.  Prior to this, the County Court system consisted of small Town Courts, the most prominent of which was Southhampton.  The initial County courthouse was a small wood-framed building that served triple-duty as the courthouse, jail, and home of the jail-keeper and his family.  In 1822, Maria Edwards, the 22 year old daughter of the then-Jailkeeper, broke her arm while attempting to prevent a prisoner from escaping.  Other landmarks in the town during the colonial period included the local Congregationalist Church, and a pub named "Griffing's," after which "Griffing Avenue" is now named. 

The wood-frame colonial courthouse served Suffolk County for well over a century, playing host to all of the County's civil and criminal trials well into the nineteenth century.  One writer, who passed through the area in 1804, commented:
Riverhead is the shire of this County.  The courthouse, a poor decayed building, and a miserable hamlet, containing about ten or twelve houses, stands near the efflux of the river. From this account of the court house it will naturally be expected that the business of lawyers and sheriffs is not here in very great demand nor in very high reputation The suspicion is certainly well founded The county court or court of common pleas sits here twice a year assembles on Tuesday and after having finished its whole business adjourns almost always on the succeeding day No lawyer if I am not misinformed has hitherto ever been able to get a living in the county of Suffolk I entertain a very respectful opinion of the gentlemen of the bar but all will agree with me in saying that this exemption from litigation while it is a peculiar is also a very honorable characteristic of this county Not far from this hamlet is a spot of ground about three miles in diameter which as I was informed by good authority is covered with shrub oaks and pines not more than five or six feet in height In the whole tract there is not a single tree of the usual size although it is surrounded by a forest of such trees The cause of this phenomenon in a place where the soil is substantially the same with that of the neighboring country is not easy to assign.

Riverhead went through a period of rapid grown during the first half of the nineteenth century.  The town's ports drew a great deal of attention in July 1814, when a battle -- loosely associated with the War of 1812 -- was fought in Riverhead's harbor. Thirty men of the town militia turned away two British barges, suffering no casualties.  In the 1830's, the port was greatly expanded, and by the 1850's a growing population and the need for a larger jail prompted a demand for a new courthouse/jail complex.  

The rapid increase in population during the first half of the nineteenth century caused a significant change in the legal system.  Prior to this, the area had been sparsely populated and remarkably un-litigious.  Indeed, there were no full time attorneys until the latter part of the 1800s.  Instead, the more educated farmers, such as Hull Osborn (1771-1834), filled in as part-time judges and lawyers.  

A new combined courthouse and jail was erected in 1855, but was immediately criticized as inadequate for the County's needs.  Twenty-six years later, in 1881, a second building, a two story courthouse, was added to the complex.  By this point, the legal industry had expanded, and there were twenty-five full time lawyers in Suffolk County, two of whom maintained offices in Riverhead.  

The nineteenth century Courthouse complex was damaged by fire in 1928, and rebuilt in 1929, and thereafter remained in service until 1994.  In 1994, a long-awaited new Courthouse was built and is attached to the nineteenth century complex by bridges. The Courthouse is distinctly modern, with large glass walls and broad open spaces, but also incorporates the small town charm of Suffolk County.  

The new Courthouse hears strictly civil cases, with all criminal matters being heard at the Criminal Court  across the river (built in the 1970s).  

In 2011, the courthouse was renamed the Alan Oshrin Supreme Court building.


[Two buildings from the 1881 Courthouse complex (rebuilt in 1928); and the 1996 Courthouse]

[The Peconic River]

Google Maps


* The Early History of Suffolk County, by Lt. Col. Sherrill Stevens

* 10/18/1995 proceedings of the Suffolk County Legislature, officially naming the Cromarty Court Complex. 

* NY Times, 10/27/1855, criticism of the newly built courthouse

*  Legal and Judicial History of New York, By Alden Chester, et al.,  page 116 (National Americana society, 1911) 

* Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History 1609 - 1925, by Alden Chester, (The American Historical Society, Inc., 1925)

* NY Times, Riverhead's Long Awaited Courthouse, by Carole Paquette (8/15/2004)

Forgotten Tales of Long Island, by Richard Panchyk, Page 126 (The History Press, 2008) 

* New Courthouse Announcement, Benchmarks, Official Journal of the New York State Court's, Fall 2006

* Riverhead Hamlet, by Tom Morris, Newsday 

* Wikipedia, "Suffolk County"

1 comment:

  1. We are restoring our old courthouse. However it is in no way as grand as yours.