As courts begin to reopen, Brooklyn lawyers remain skeptical about return
Some expect courts could reopen in July, others say not in 2020
The New York State Court System’s announcement last week that it would be gradually reopening in counties across the state that meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s safety benchmarks was seen as a positive first step in the legal community.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Carrie Anne Cavallo, immediate past president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association. “We need to let people get back to work safely. As long as protocols are being followed this will allow people to return to work and earn money.”
However, Brooklyn lawyers remain skeptical that the courts will be able to meet those guidelines anytime soon.
“When will Brooklyn open?” Cavallo repeated. “Speculating, I guess mid-July, but with limited service. New filings restriction is a mystery to me. It’s going to cause such a rush to the courthouse steps. Once we can start that, I’m nervous for everyone.”
Dominick Napoletano, a past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, is working with a group within the State Bar Association that is putting together a comprehensive report, which will be submitted to Justice George Silver, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City, and Justice Vito Caruso, his upstate counterpart.
“It’s good news overall, but I don’t know if it matters much in New York City,” said Domenick Napoletano, co-chair of the NYS Bar Association’s Emergency Task Force for Solo and Small Firm Practitioners. “Brooklyn is not going to open for at least January if we’re being realistic. It’s not opening in June. It’s not opening in September.”
Napoletano explained that if the court system is going to be as realistic as possible about reopening, it will focus on virtual operations and should start to consider allowing new filings in a staggered way.
“In those 37 upstate counties the populations are miniscule, that’s how they can reopen,” Napoletano said. “That’s not going to happen here, so we’re putting together a proposal with some ideas of allowing new filings in a staggered way.”
The group has come up with a number of ideas, some more realistic than others. One is to split days of the week up so that each day is assigned to a specific area of the law so that new filings can be done. Otherwise, Napoletano said, we could see a rush of people deciding to file new cases upstate, as has already happened in a number of divorce cases.
The problem in New York City is that many of the courthouses were built for smaller populations and fewer cases than they handle today. The Civil Court in Brooklyn, at 141 Livingston St., has become a prime example for a building that nobody expects will open soon. With small elevators and cramped courtrooms, the idea of social distancing within that building seems impossible to many.
“Even in the larger courthouses like 320 Jay St. — how are they going to pick juries?” Napoletano asked without expecting an answer. “They’re going to have 300 people shoulder-to-shoulder waiting to be called? Or worse, 12 people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the jury box. There can be some bench trials, but in many cases people have the right to a trial by jury. Nobody is picking a jury anytime soon in Brooklyn.”
So far, the court system has been reluctant to open up to new filings in New York City, even remotely, and has asked judges to focus on backlogs. However, Napoletano pointed out that unless people are willing to settle, they are limited to how much can be done.
The reasoning behind the focus on the backlog is that there will be an expected avalanche of new cases coming once the courts do accept new filings. So the hope is that if judges can get rid of all of their old cases they’ll be prepared for what’s coming.
“Their theory is that if they can get rid of these then the avalanche will be easier to handle,” Napoletano said. “Except the avalanche is just getting bigger and bigger by the day. Part of what we do is not going to happen for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do more things virtually.”