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Surrogate’s Courts getting resources to handle COVID-related cases

Chief Judge DiFiore has no date yet for potential court reopening

May 13, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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In her weekly address to the legal community, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore was upbeat on Monday as she explained that the court system is continuing to expand its virtual operations even as it begins planning for reopening.

“So, the key indicators we’ve been watching closely — the number of new COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths — are all moving in the right direction, and here in New York, the virus appears to be in retreat,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “But it has not been defeated. It remains a dangerous enemy, and one, we are told, is likely to return.

“We are also told that how dangerous it might be if it does return, and how deep its impact might cut depends on how prudent, smart and responsible we are now and in the coming weeks and months,” she continued. “We will work toward New York becoming a smart and successful model for the rest of our nation.”

Last week, the court system took a big step in a return to normalcy when it began hearing some non-essential cases, and it opened, virtually, its problem-solving courts.

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On Monday, Chief Judge DiFiore reported that the New York State Court System has conducted 40,000 conferences and court proceedings, has settled more than a third of the cases it conferenced and has issued over 9,000 written decisions on pending motions and other matters.

“We are particularly focused on taking advantage of this period to resolve our large backlog of undecided motions — and we have been creative in using our resources to the fullest extent to achieve this goal,” DiFiore said. “We have prioritized the resolution of our pending motions because it will maximize our capacity to meet, head-on, the large surge of new cases we fully expect to be commenced once the restrictions on new filings are lifted.”

An expansion of the virtual operations in the Surrogate’s Court is the next step for the court system, where there are expected to be additional cases as the estates of people who have died of COVID-19 related illnesses begin to be processed.

Michael Miller, the immediate past president of the NYS Bar Association, is going to coordinate a pro bono effort to help family members of coronavirus victims who cannot afford legal representation. Chief Judge DiFiore said that plans for training volunteer attorneys have already begun.

Chief Judge DiFiore added that the court system is concerned with the growing number of people who have been arrested on serious criminal charges, but who have not had a review of the charges pending against them because the state is unable to convene grand juries.

“While we remain unable to convene grand juries, last week the governor issued an executive order that enables us to conduct preliminary hearings at which a judge will evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the charge or charges filed against a defendant who is being held in custody,” she said.

The court system has also conducted training so that staff and judges, working with prosecutors and the defense bar, can schedule preliminary hearings in virtual parts.

Judge DiFiore still couldn’t give a date for when she expects the courts to reopen, but she cautioned that even when they do, the reopening will likely include new protocols to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus such as requiring people to wear face masks, providing personal protective equipment and potentially screening individuals for symptoms.

“New Yorkers can rest assured that we are working every day — and sometimes we’re even doubling back and re-crafting the plan we thought was good to go — in order to be ready for our next virtual iteration and for our eventual in-person reopening,” Chief Judge DiFiore concluded. “We will be ready to support the reopening of our state, provide an increasing range of justice services to our communities and continue in our mission of upholding the rule of law.”

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