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Courts have reopened too soon, say Brooklyn Defender Services and other advocates

June 12, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The New York City court system has officially reopened as part of one of a three-part plan, but a coalition of legal providers and advocates say it’s happened too soon.

A coalition that includes Bill Bryan, attorney in charge at Brooklyn Defender Services, and 18 other advocacy and public defender groups wrote a letter on Wednesday addressed to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks that urges the Office of Court Administration to stop the reopening of the courts.

The groups claim that by opening the courts amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and citywide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, officials are needlessly putting the public at risk.

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“At a time in which tens of thousands of New Yorkers are sick, in mourning, and gripped by a collective sense of injustice and imbalance, reopening the Courts prematurely could put thousands more at risk of illness or death,” the letter said. “As of this date, more than 170 employees in the court system have been infected with Covid-19. As you know, two Brooklyn Civil Supreme Court judges have died from Covid-19.”

The two judges the coalition is referring to are Hon. Johnny Lee Baynes and Hon. Noach Dear, who were 64 and 66, respectively. Hon. Lawrence Knipel, administrative judge of the Supreme Court, Civil Term, and Frank Carone, president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, also caught the coronavirus, but both have made a full recovery and are back at their respective jobs.

The coalition of advocates said that they estimate at least 50,000 new cases will be filed in Housing Court immediately after the eviction moratorium is lifted and say that this disproportionately impacts communities of more color.

“We believe there can be a plan to reopen the Courts safely and at the appropriate time but not before there is a safety plan in place developed with input from key stakeholders,” the letter says. “Opening civil courts before then, including its most voluminous court, housing court, only threatens to compound and exacerbate the worst impacts of the Covid-19 crisis.”

Once again, the loudest alarm from legal service providers and attorneys continues to point toward 141 Livingston St., the Civil Court in Brooklyn that also hosts the Housing Court. It’s notoriously small and cramped and many doubt that proper social distancing is possible in the building.

“Any reopening of housing courts must be done in a way that prioritizes the health of the people who work and appear there, and to date OCA has not satisfied basic safety imperatives,” said Austen Refuerzo, supervising attorney of the Civil Defense Practice of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. “The communities of color most impacted by the COVID-19 health crisis are the ones most threatened by a needlessly hasty reopening of our housing courts. Our city, and the OCA, has an obligation to meet their needs.”

Justice Anthony Cannataro, the administrative judge for the New York City Civil Court, admitted that the building was an issue when he spoke with members of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association last month, but said that the court system is unlikely to require in-person appearances soon and will conduct as much business as possible virtually.

“There is no facility that poses more difficulties with respect to a safe reopening, whatever that is, than 141 Livingston St.,” Justice Cannataro said. “It is a cramped structure that was never designed to host a court.”

“I want to make it possible so that anyone who doesn’t want to travel to 141 Livingston St. doesn’t have to travel to 141 Livingston St.,” Justice Cannataro went on to say. “I would not quarrel with anyone’s decision to stay out of that building because they don’t feel comfortable working in that space.”

As the courts reopen, it is not a return to business as usual. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore refers to Phase One as the start of the “new normal” that includes COVID-19 checks at courthouse entrances, mask requirements for all visitors and employees who interact with them, and physical distancing markers in place to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

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