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Public defender groups: Court opening plan endangers clients, staff

July 10, 2020 David Brand

A coalition of New York City public defender organizations has called on the state court system to continue remote appearances in criminal cases, even as New York’s top judges move to resume in-person proceedings next week.

In a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks Thursday, six defender groups, including Legal Aid and Queens Defenders, say in-person proceedings set to resume Monday will threaten the health and safety of visitors, parties and personnel.

“It is well established that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on low-income Black and Brown people, the same community that is also disproportionately arrested and represented in court cases in NYC and will bear the brunt of this new policy,” they wrote.

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The decision to resume operations also contrasts conversations members of the defender groups have had with court officials in recent weeks, and was made without their input.

“Given what we believed was a collaborative effort to guarantee a safe environment upon returning to live appearances in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were shocked to learn of this drastic change in plan,” they wrote. “We strongly oppose reopening of the Supreme Court because it is not safe and it is not essential to do so.”

Arraignments and case conferences have been conducted remotely since March. The public defenders said there was no need to change a temporary system that has worked to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“It makes even less sense,” they wrote, because Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order suspending a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, which freezes the clock for mandatory appearances.

Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen called the public defenders’ claims “absurd.”

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“Any suggestion that we would endanger the health and welfare of our employees, attorneys, litigants, defendants or the public is absurd. We are taking the most conservative, measured and deliberative approach to every action as we move to resume in-person court appearances,” Chalfen said.


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