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Chief judge stresses optimistic caution during weekly address to courts

April 29, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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During her now-weekly public addresses to the court system and legal community, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said on Monday that while pandemic conditions are improving, the court system must remain disciplined when lifting restrictions it put in place and said the system will follow the guidance of public health experts and elected officials.

Chief Judge DiFiore added that the court will continue to expand its temporary virtual operations while consulting the bar and justice partners about their concerns.

“As Governor Cuomo said recently, ‘We’re in a better place,’ but he also implored us not to let our guard down, and I agree completely, because our actions now and in the coming days will continue to have consequences for the future, in terms of how quickly and how well we emerge from this initial phase of the pandemic,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

“We are all anxious to get back to our jobs and our old routines,” she continued. “But that desire to return, to whatever our new place might be, cannot be the cause of any false or ill-advised steps. We must remain grounded and disciplined in following the instructions and guidelines of our public health experts and government leaders as we carefully plan out the next steps, including testing and tracing, for how we can safely emerge into our new normal.”

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Hon. Edwina Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives. Photo: Rob Abruzzese/Brooklyn Eagle

Her message of optimistic caution came after she reported that there have been 168 judges and court employees across the state that have tested positive for COVID-19.

“More than half of them are members of our uniformed forces, underscoring the risks they face, and the courage they show, in reporting to work every day to keep our courts open,” DiFiore said. “Tragically, several of our beloved judges and professional staff have passed away from complications caused by the virus. We send our thoughts and prayers to their family members and friends, as well as our promise to honor their memories and hold them close in our hearts.”

While the courts have begun virtual operations, new cases are only happening in emergency and essential situations. This has given judges the opportunity to clear some of their backlogs of undecided motions. The chief judge said that this will put courts in a good position once they fully reopen to an expected surge in new case filings.

One of the court’s top concerns right now is for self-represented litigants and the difficulties they have and continue to face accessing the virtual courts, DiFiore said. In charge of the issue is Justice Edwina Mendelson, deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives, who will make a recommendation on potential solutions soon.

New law school graduates are also an area of concern. The Court of Appeals approved waivers last week to help recent graduates as well as current students. Included among those was a waiver of distance learning limitations, a waiver of the full-time pro bono work requirement, and the temporary suspension of certain application deadlines.

“I also want to thank the Presiding and Associate Justices of the Appellate Division for being responsive to the needs of the profession and our recent law graduates, including the effort of the Justices in the Second Department, our largest appellate court, which admitted 320 new attorneys through a virtual admissions process conducted over the last two weeks. All positive steps, and we thank them for that,” DiFiore said.

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