City courts to reopen Wednesday with ‘methodical and deliberate’ operations
The New York City courts will resume in-person operations on Wednesday for the first time since they were closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in her weekly address to the court system on Monday.
Some court employees were already back in their respective buildings on Monday as preparations have begun for Wednesday’s reopening.
“As of today, New York City has entered into Phase 1 of Governor Cuomo’s regional, phased-in plan for the economic reopening of our state, and by Wednesday, our judges, chambers staff and designated court personnel in every region of the state will be back at work in their assigned courthouses,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.
The New York City courts will be reopened with many precautions in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. Similar to what the upstate courts have already implemented, there will be staggered scheduling of court appearances, calendars and room usage, and people will be required to wear masks and follow physical distancing requirements.
“Phase 1 restart is occurring Wednesday in Brooklyn and across the whole city,” confirmed Justice Lawrence Knipel, the administrative judge of the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term. “Outside of emergencies, we’re still going to handle most matters virtually, but the judges and most of their staff will be back. We’re working right now to make it as safe as possible.”
Justice Knipel was briefly hospitalized during the height of the pandemic, but has since made a complete recovery. Taking his place was Justice Ellen Spodek, who served as interim administrative judge for a few weeks. Justice Knipel said that even though Spodek has relinquished her interim title, she is still helping out.
“It’s a slow process, a big process, and it’s much easier to close than open,” Justice Knipel said. “Judge Spodek is still helping out. She did a great job filling in, so much so that I’ve asked her to stay on and help out, for continuity’s sake, so she’s doing that.”
Justice Matthew D’Emic, the administrative judge of the Supreme Court, Criminal Term, estimated that approximately 20 percent of his court’s usual staff will be on hand by Wednesday and he’s expecting most, if not all, of his judges back.
“After all areas of the courthouse have been cleaned and safety measures have been taken, the judges and chambers staff will return to the courthouses,” Justice D’Emic said. “Work will take place remotely from the judges’ chambers initially. Obviously there will be limited access to the courthouse and foot traffic will be monitored.
With so many of Brooklyn’s courts small and often crowded, many attorneys and some judges predicted that the first day of reopening was months away. However, administrative and supervising judges said that all city courts, including the notoriously crowded Housing Court in 141 Livingston St., will indeed open.
Justice Anthony Cannataro, administrative judge of the NYC Civil Court, said that while the courts would all be reopened, they would try not to require in-person appearances when possible.
Chief Judge DiFiore indeed confirmed on Monday that even as staff return to the local courthouses that they will continue to use virtual technology to keep traffic down. The courts will set aside space for unrepresented litigants to use who don’t have access to technology to be able to use Skype for Business.
The Chief Judge also addressed the Criminal Court in respect to the high volume of protesters that have been arrested. She explained that the courts have been arraigning defendants who have appeared in virtual parts in order to avoid slowing down the reopening.
“We are confident that our approach of incrementally opening the valve to additional in-person activities and courthouse traffic is the smartest way to deal with the reality that COVID-19 is still a presence,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “Because until a vaccine is available, no one really knows what will happen as restrictions are eased and more and more people come into contact with each other on a regular basis.
“And we’ve all come much too far since the dark days of March and April to move forward carelessly and risk another resurgence of the virus; so, hence, our careful, methodical and deliberate approach to reestablishing our in-court operations.”
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