Legal community defends memory and actions of Justice Johnny Lee Baynes
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Johnny Lee Baynes, who died on Thursday, March 26 due to complications related to the coronavirus, was singled out in a major newspaper on Thursday for arguing with an unnamed lawyer who allegedly complained about social distancing and Baynes not doing enough to protect the people in his courtroom.
Frank Carone, president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, who is bedridden and suffering from the coronavirus, said he thought that it was unfair to see Justice Baynes singled out the way he was.
“I don’t think Judge Baynes did a single thing wrong, not a scintilla,” said Carone. “As a matter of fact, he did the opposite, he continued to work until he was instructed not to. He didn’t have a crystal ball to see into the future. He was doing what he was told was necessary. He’s one of the most honorable human beings not only on the bench but any place in a person’s life. To single him out is incredibly ridiculous.”
The incident discussed in the news piece took place on March 12. At that time, the only instruction Justice Baynes had from the court said to restrict people who had traveled to one of five countries infected at the time or those who had been diagnosed or showed flu-like symptoms.
“On the date that those photos were allegedly taken, there was no statewide requirement for social distancing,” said a spokesperson from the Office of Court Administration (OCA). “That came into effect the following week.
“And while we are keenly aware and very concerned for the health of all our colleagues who work, attorneys who practice, and court users who frequent Kings County Supreme Court, statewide, less than one percent of the court system’s 16,000 judges and non-judicial employees have reported to us that they are ill or hospitalized because of the pandemic.”
It wasn’t until later that day that Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed restrictions on large groups and it wasn’t until the next day that the OCA issued orders to reduce courthouse traffic.
While Justice Baynes was singled out, the situation that was allegedly depicted in his courtroom was similar in many courtrooms in the borough, city and state that day.
“It was a similar scene in every motion part, including (Administrative Judge Lawrence Knipel’s) part, and in parts in my own courthouse,” said one judge who was told by OCA not to respond to the story on the record. “I can only assume they focused on Judge Baynes because he can’t respond.”
The courts have received some criticism that they did not act quickly enough, or implement social distancing guidelines early enough. One voice that has spoken out comes from the NYS Court Clerks Association, which criticized OCA for not doing enough even by March 16, when non-essential employees were sent home.
One lawyer who had a case before Justice Baynes on March 12 said that people indeed were trying to social distance in the courtroom, but he’d wished that Justice Baynes had instructed people to sit in the empty jury box like some judges had done that day.
However, the New York State Bar Association’s co-chair of their COVID-19 Task Force, Domenick Napoletano, praised OCA’s response under the circumstances. Carone, too, said that they did the best they could with the information they had at the time.
“This is a unique circumstance in our lifetime,” Carone said. “I think armed with the scientific evidence in front of them, the courts acted prudently and, in fact, pivoted impressively to provide emergency service immediately and now to offer enhanced filings and virtual argument. Faced with an unprecedented pandemic, I think the administration of the courts has acted with incredible leadership and I really mean that.”
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