March 15, 2023
By Bill Raftery
While many Americans are familiar with the 90s comedy Night Court and its newly revived version on NBC, the real “night courts” of America often look and operate far differently. In fact, the term night court can refer to at least two different operating processes used in state courts today.
Night arraignment and criminal proceedings: This kind of night court is focused on criminal arraignments. The Criminal Division of the New York State Supreme Court – New York County which the TV show is based on does operate a night/evening docket for arraignments and hearings between the hours of 5 pm and 1 am. New York’s version first opened in 1907 and had dockets specifically designated for men and women with the women’s docket focused on the “social evil” of prostitution. Such 24-hour-a-day arraignments are not uncommon, especially in larger urban areas. In addition, these courts will often handle search and arrest warrants, set and accept bail, hear emergency petitions (such as those related to child or other abuse), and even perform weddings.
Night hearings and trials: Whereas the first type of night court is focused on shorter often criminal proceedings, the second kind involves full criminal and civil trials, and proceedings that start in the evening hours. Such practices can trace back at least as far as the 1750s and London’s Central Criminal Court of England and Wales (the “Old Bailey”) where until 1844 judges and attorneys would sit for a 3 pm “lunch” and then hold evening sessions starting at 5 pm through 9 pm.
Some states at various times in the past even operated nighttime jury trials. People v. Hurley (County Court, Onondaga County, New York. April 30, 1976, 86 Misc.2d 601, 383 N.Y.S.2d 177) discusses for example a jury trial that started at 9:00 P.M. on June 19, 1975, with a verdict returned at 6:05 A.M. the following morning. As the court noted in Hurley, these proceedings often took place because judges worked part-time as jurists and full-time in their day jobs in smaller communities.
Moreover, night hearings and trials offer parties the opportunity to be heard without the need to take time off work. New York’s efforts at Night Court for civil proceedings goes back to 1916 as an “Experiment for the Benefit of Day Workers” for claims below $50 (equivalent to about $1,400 in 2023). Many courts throughout the U.S. offer such night court options for small claims and similar cases.
Does your jurisdiction have a night court? Share your experiences with us. For more information, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.