Judges and judicial staff will undergo COVID screening starting Wednesday

July 15, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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New York City celebrated its first day with no COVID-19 related deaths over the weekend, but as the number of cases across the country continues to set records, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore reported on Monday during her weekly address to the legal community that the New York City courts will begin to undergo the same screening upon entering the courts that the general public are already subject to.

“In order to safeguard the health and safety of our court family and all court users, we will be extending our COVID screening protocol to all judges and nonjudicial personnel, effective this Wednesday, July 15,” Chief Judge DiFiore said. “Judges and nonjudicial staff will undergo temperature screening upon their arrival at the workplace and conduct a daily COVID self-assessment by answering a series of questions on their computer or on a hard copy form.”

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Previously, only judges and employees of the court who interacted with the general public have been subjected to daily screenings. Most judges are working in their chambers with only essential staff on hand.

“Now, candidly, I understand that some may find these measures inconvenient, but they are necessary given the ‘new normal’ that we are all living in, and it is critically important that we remain consistent and disciplined in following these practices in order to achieve our goal of restoring in-person justice services without contributing to a resurgence of COVID-19,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

As the courts reopen, however, many people remain hesitant to return to packed courtrooms. The Housing Court in Brooklyn, located at 141 Livingston St., has been especially problematic for many attorneys as its elevators are small, hallways packed and courtrooms cramped. The Criminal Courts are also problematic, and some legal aid service providers are threatening to boycott in-person appearances.

“If OCA does not agree to pause the calendaring of in-person appearances by the end of the day tomorrow, July 13, 2020, we will have no choice but to pursue any action available to us by law to protect our clients and staff, including if necessary seeking relief in federal court,” the public defenders wrote in the letter.

The biggest changes are set to occur on July 20, when the Supreme Court begins in-person appearances for criminal cases, and on Aug. 10, when grand juries are reconvened.

While some judges and lawyers remain skeptical that jurors will actually show up for jury duty when they can’t sit inside a restaurant safely, the courts seem determined to move ahead.

“We view this not only as part of our ongoing responsibilities to the parties involved in that litigation, but as an excellent opportunity to help us responsibly prepare for the resumption of in-court proceedings, including new jury trials,” Chief Judge DiFiore said.

She added, “As I mentioned last week, we have been carefully planning for the safe return of grand juries. We have retrofitted dozens of courtrooms and installed plexiglass barriers in strategic locations to ensure safe personal distancing, and we will continue to work with the district attorneys’ offices, the defense bar and our own epidemiologist to continuously assess, and minimize, any public health risks that could be presented.”

While in-person operations expand, so do the virtual operations. Chief Judge DiFiore pointed out that the NYC Criminal Courts have heard nearly 19,000 arraignments, 34,000 criminal proceedings and more than 600 preliminary hearings. The Supreme Court, Criminal Term, has heard an additional 11,360 virtual proceedings.

“I want to thank Judge Tamiko Amaker, the administrative judge of the New York City Criminal Court, and all of the supervising judges, trial judges and professional staff, including Chief Clerk Justin Barry, who have kept this very busy court up and running to safely meet the demands for its services throughout the pandemic,” DiFiore said.

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