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In-person operation in Supreme Court begins for first time since March 16

July 21, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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New York City officially entered Phase Four of its reopening, and with it the Kings County Supreme Court, Criminal Term held its first in-person hearings since the courts shutdown on March 16.

Of course, the courts never completely closed down because they continued to operate virtually throughout the pandemic. As Chief Judge Janet DiFiore pointed out on Monday in her weekly address to the legal community, the New York City Criminal Court was able to arraign more than 19,000 defendants and conduct 34,000 criminal proceedings since March, and statewide judges have conferenced more than 130,000 cases on non-essential matters.

“Now that we have implemented all responsible measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our courthouses, we have a constitutional obligation to gradually transition back to in-person operations, as we are doing now all across the state,” DiFiore said in her address on Monday.

Grand juries have been empaneled in Upstate New York and are expected to resume in Brooklyn and New York City on Aug. 10.

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Chief Judge DiFiore said that in the few cases that have already taken place in-person in New York City Criminal Courts, there has been an increase in the rate of pleas and dispositions, which she said is evidence that it is important to continue to reopen.

“While virtual proceedings will continue to play an important role for us in limiting courthouse traffic, we are unwavering in our commitment to move forward, safely and responsibly, with in-person appearances in order to carry out our constitutional mission of fairly and speedily resolving cases, including those involving the constitutional rights of accused individuals, many of whom have been incarcerated since early in the pandemic,” DiFiore said.

Six public defenders’ organizations across New York City have sued the NYS Office of Court Administration in Manhattan Federal Court. They claim that it has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by resuming in-person appearances, forcing defendants and attorneys with pre-existing medical conditions to visit the courthouses for arraignments and conferences. The complaint also said that the court system “rushed” to reopen.

While the court system is going ahead with in-person appearances, New York City has changed its mind about reopening restaurants indoors, which was supposed to be a part of Phase Three, and has also decided against reopening museums and other cultural institutions such as the New York Aquarium, which were supposed to be a part of Phase Four.

In an effort to do as much as possible virtually, the Manhattan Housing Court has introduced the NYS Courts Electronic Filing System (NYSCEF), or e-filing. Chief Judge DiFiore added that it will be in Brooklyn by Aug. 10.

The Brooklyn Housing Court, located at 141 Livingston St., has been considered by many in the legal community to be especially problematic to reopen, as it is so cramped. However, Chief Judge DiFiore reported that the court system has moved the busiest trial parts in the Brooklyn Housing Court to 320 Jay St., where it will begin in-person appearances on July 27.

The first matters the Brooklyn Housing Court will hear in person will involve bench trials for pre-pandemic matters where both sides have lawyers. For lawyers or litigants who can’t appear in person, the court will strongly encourage virtual bench trials.

“I want to take this opportunity to thank Judge Anthony Cannataro, our administrative judge for the New York City Civil Court, and our Civil Court and Housing Court judges and professional staff for their dedication to delivering justice in this very busy and challenging court,” DiFiore said.

“Their extraordinary work includes the start of virtual bench trials in automobile no-fault claims in Queens Civil Court, which began last Thursday, and the planned resumption, in August, of citywide Small Claims Court operations, with a strong emphasis there, as well, on virtual operations in the area of pre-trial mediation,” she added.

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