Opinion 88-20

This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

COUNTIES -- Courts (authority to relocate family court) -- County Seat (effect of relocation of family court)

COUNTY LAW, §216; NY CONST, ART III, §17: A county, by resolution, may relocate its family court from the unincorporated area of a town to a village. Such relocation alone would not have the effect of moving the location of the county seat.

You ask whether a family court may be moved from its present location in the county seat to another location in the county without also effectuating a change in the location of the county seat. You state that the county seat is currently located in an unincorporated portion of a town.

Initially, we note that County Law, §216 provides that the legislative body of a county shall have the power to select and change the site of any county office or building in the county except as is otherwise provided in that section. Among the restrictions contained in section 216 is one relating to courthouses. Specifically, County Law, §216 provides that a courthouse cannot be removed from its location in a city or village without the approval of a proposition voted on by the qualified electors of the county at a general or special election. In this instance, the court which is proposed to be moved is currently located in an unincorporated portion of a town. Therefore, the referendum requirement contained in County Law, §216 has no application and no referendum is required or authorized under that section as a condition to moving the courthouse.

There is no other statute of which we are aware which requires that the family court be located in a particular part of the county. Consequently, unless there exists a valid county local law which requires county office buildings to be situated in a particular part of the county, it is our opinion that the county may, pursuant to County Law, §216, relocate the courthouse to another location in the county.

In our view, Article III, section 17 of the New York State Constitution, which was referred to in your inquiry and which prohibits the Legislature from passing a private or local law "locating or changing county seats", is not pertinent to this inquiry. That section prohibits only the adoption of local or private acts by the State Legislature which, among other things, change a county seat. For purposes of article III, §1, a local act has been described generally as an act of the state legislature which operates only upon a limited area, or upon persons within a specified locality (Matter of Henneberger, 155 NY 420). Therefore, it is our opinion that neither County Law, §216 nor a county resolution adopted pursuant to that statute is a local act within the meaning and intent of Article III, §17.

Your inquiry expressed concern about whether the relocation of the family court would also result in the relocation of the county seat. In this regard, we note that, although the term "county seat" is generally understood as describing the principal place within the county where county records are kept and the business of the county is transacted (25 NY Jur2d, Counties, §11), it is not defined in the Constitution or by statute. Further, County Law, §216, which gives county legislative bodies substantial flexibility to change the location of county offices within the county, makes no reference to the county seat. Therefore, as was noted above, it is our opinion that, in the absence of a valid local enactment, a county may relocate its family court in accordance with the provisions of section 216 of the County Law and such relocation alone would not have the effect of moving the county seat.

May 3, 1988
Alan S. Schoenberger, Esq., County Attorney
County of Rockland