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State courts heard nearly 8,000 matters in first week of virtual courts

April 22, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The first week of virtual courts in New York State was a success, according to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, who gave an update on the court system on Monday following the first week the courts heard non-essential and emergency cases via video conferencing.

“With the assistance of their administrative and legal staff, our judges from across the state are remotely scheduling and conferencing cases with lawyers appearing by Skype or telephone,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “Judges are resolving outstanding issues, addressing discovery disputes and facilitating a significant number of settlements.”

In what has become a regular address to the statewide legal community, Chief Judge DiFiore gave a pandemic-related update on the court system. She reported that, in its first week since expanding virtual operations beyond the Criminal and Family courts, the system heard nearly 8,000 matters and judges settled or disposed of over 2,600 cases and wrote over 1,400 decisions across New York.

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“It’s hard to believe that in less than a month we were able to create a virtual framework that has allowed our judges and non-judicial staff across the state to get back to work and do our part to deliver justice in this most unusual way in this extraordinary time,” DiFiore said. “It has been inspiring to watch this process unfold.”

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has been painful for the legal community, which has seen two judges, Hon. Johnny Lee Baynes and Hon. Noach Dear, die over the last two months. Brooklyn is also without judges Hon. Lawrence Knipel, administrative judge of the Supreme Court, Civil Term, who has been out sick with the coronavirus. After a brief stay in the hospital, Justice Knipel is at home recovering. Justice Ellen Spodek has temporarily taken over as interim administrative judge of that court.

“The last weeks have been painful for all of us, the daily death tolls have been hard to process, and many of us have experienced the loss of family, friends, loved ones, colleagues,” Chief Judge DiFiore said during her speech. “Each life lost to COVID-19 is a tragedy and we are keeping every soul in our thoughts and our prayers.”

Currently there are only a small number of court employees inside the court houses themselves, mostly court officers who are required to keep court proceedings open to the public, and some court clerks. Chief Judge DiFiore thanked them for their “unwavering support” for keeping the courts open during the pandemic.

The chief judge also reported that the Appellate Division, Second Department in Brooklyn has resumed virtual arguments, and that the other three departments will soon follow. She said that the Court of Appeals is expected to begin hearing remote oral arguments in June.

Justice Michael Garcia, associate judge of the Court of Appeals, is going to oversee a task force to make sure that graduating law school students can take the bar exam in the fall, and if they can’t, to arrange a temporary measure that will allow qualified graduates to practice law.

“The group is considering different solutions and contingency plans to reduce hardship for graduates in the event it is not feasible to administer the bar exam as scheduled, including a proposal to provide temporary authorization to qualified candidates to practice law,” DiFiore said.

As far as reopening the courts, DiFiore said that she would like to see it open as soon as possible, and will consider the advice and orders of scientific data, public-health experts and elected officials.

“In the long run, of course, we want to return to normal operations whenever that becomes possible and appropriate,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “You can be assured that our efforts will be calibrated to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and the scientific data and guidance we receive from our public health experts, our elected officials and other relevant governmental authorities.”


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