Upstate courts continue reopening as NYC eyes June 8 as possible restart date
Just shy of three months after the unprecedented closing of the New York State Court System due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks like all of the courts may finally be open again by June 8.
During her weekly address to the legal community on Monday, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said that all of the courts outside of NYC have reopened smoothly and confirmed that she will be on the Court of Appeals bench herself this week.
No official announcement has been made yet on the exact date the city courts will reopen, but Chief Judge DiFiore has been following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lead on the issue and said that local courts are busy preparing to reopen any day.
“So, as of today, New York City is the only region in the state that has not yet met the benchmarks for reopening, but we know that the City is making steady progress toward that goal, and the governor has suggested that June 8th is a realistic date for New York City to reopen,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “We have been carefully planning and preparing for Phase 1, and we will be ready for the safe return of judges and court staff to our courthouses throughout the five boroughs.”
Of course, the reopenings don’t mean that the courts are back to the way they were in January. Instead, social distancing measures have been put in place as everyone entering the courts is checked for symptoms, employees are required to wear masks, hand sanitizer and masks are provided for the general public, and plexiglass partitions have been installed.
“It is, clearly, a ‘new normal’ for all of us in the courts, a new normal defined by reduced courthouse traffic, personal distancing, face coverings and a host of operational and safety measures designed to prevent the spread of the virus,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.
For months the courts were open but operating virtually, and only new “essential and emergency” cases were being filed and judges were told to focus on their backlogs. Since the reopenings have begun, new cases are being accepted upstate, and are being accepted in New York City via the e-filing system.
As New York City is getting set for Phase 1 of reopening, which includes judges and employees returning to their physical buildings with protections in place, The 5th, 6th and 7th Judicial Districts will officially begin Phase 2 on Wednesday, June 3. The 4th Judicial District will begin on Friday, June 5.
Phase 2 will allow for increased courthouse traffic as a limited number of essential matters will begin happening in person. Non-essential matters will still be done virtually. The Chief Judge identified the Family Court as one that will see an increase in the number of in-court appearances.
“As we progress toward fuller in-person court operations in New York City and across the state, we will employ all of the operational best practices and safety measures in our power to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including continued use of virtual technology to reduce courthouse traffic; staggered scheduling; COVID screening; personal distancing; facemasks and other PPE; sanitizing agents; regular cleaning; acrylic barriers — and anything else that we think of that can be reasonably and responsibly implemented,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.
The Chief Judge added that social distancing and other procedures implemented to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread will likely remain in place until a vaccine is produced.
Some attorneys have suggested that it is unlikely that New York City will be able to reopen its local courts due to their crowded nature. The Brooklyn Civil Court located at 141 Livingston St. is a building that some have suggested makes social distancing impossible.
Court officials, meanwhile, have said that there will be no exceptions made for certain buildings and that once New York City is reopened the entire court system will reopen as well. Justice Anthony Cannataro, the administrative judge of the NYC Civil Court, said that 141 Livingston St. is indeed one of the toughest to practice social distancing in, but that no exceptions will be made.
“All I can say is that there is no special carve out for the Brooklyn Civil Court,” Justice Cannataro said when speaking with the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association in May. Justice Cannataro vowed to follow CDC instructions on making that courthouse as safe as possible and said that there likely will be no requirement for in-person appearances at that courthouse.
“I want to facilitate that by enhancing virtual operations, doing everything that we can in the virtual space, or maybe even in a different physical space, which is not completely off the table,” Justice Cannataro said.
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