Brooklyn Boro

Mayor calls for courts to fully reopen; legal community questions his judgment

Aidala: 'It sounds like someone who doesn't know how the court system works'

July 28, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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While crime is still a far cry from the levels of the 1990s, the city murder rate and incidences of shootings have both risen this year, and Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to address the uptick by immediately reopening the court system and going back to jury trials as soon as possible.

“We also have to restart all the pieces of the criminal justice system, to make sure that if God forbid, someone has committed an act of violence and means to do harm to their community members that we can do something about it,” de Blasio said on Monday. “So the bottom line is our criminal justice system needs to get back to full strength, our courts not only need to reopen, they need to reopen fully as quickly as possible.”

The court system completely closed in the middle of March with only the Criminal Court and the Family Courts remaining open for emergencies. Since then, the system has slowly reopened in New York City, including the Supreme Court for in-person appearances last week and the Housing Court for in-person appearances on Monday.

Jury trials have still not resumed, but that will change on Aug. 10 when the court system will reconvene grand juries. Lawyers who have spoken to the Brooklyn Eagle are skeptical that jurors, many of whom are still working from home, will risk infection to show up to jury duty, but Chief Judge DiFiore said that it is a constitutional requirement to reopen and the system will continue its gradual process.

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Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. Photos: Brooklyn Eagle File

That Aug. 10 restart isn’t sitting well with de Blasio, however, as he not only wants it to happen sooner, but wants it to happen all at once and immediately. In a letter to Chief Judge DiFiore as well as District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and the DAs from the other four boroughs, de Blasio asked them to “find a way to get back to full strength” as quickly as possible.

The court system is already working on its reopening plan, which is constantly being detailed by Chief Judge DiFiore in a weekly address to the legal community each Monday. Members of the court community have suggested that Blasio may not really understand the court system.

“We have been working to re-establish full court operations, including jury trials,” a spokesperson for the courts said. “While New York City still does not allow indoor dining, the mayor blithely asks us to call in thousands of people a week citywide for jury duty. Clearly he has absolutely no understanding of how the criminal justice process works.”

Attorney Arthur Aidala, a past president of the Brooklyn Bar Association, agreed.

“It sounds like someone who doesn’t know how the court system works,” said Aidala with a laugh. “Even if we were having trials right now, they would be from incidents that would have happened over a year ago. Nothing happening in New York City over the last few months is happening because we’re not trying cases that are over a year old.”

Attorney Arthur Aidala.

Defense attorney Michael Farkas, a trustee of the Brooklyn Bar Association and a past president of the Kings County Criminal Bar Association, agreed that the courts being closed has nothing to do with the rise in crime and instead put the blame directly on de Blasio.

“There he goes again, speaking without the benefit of facts, logic or reason,” Farkas said. “Violent criminals aren’t shooting people by the dozens every week now because they think the courts are closed.

“The courts aren’t closed,” Farkas continued. “Every person arrested for a real crime is being arraigned and prosecuted. People are getting shot in droves because this is the kind of city that the mayor’s inept leadership has wrought. Maybe he should actually listen to community leaders who are begging him to help them to improve public safety. Instead, he’s doing exactly the same thing as the president he claims to so despise — comically blaming others for his own obvious failures.”

The Criminal Law Section of the Brooklyn Bar Association is currently drafting a letter to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks that will join in the opposition to reopening the courts.

Aidala, who said that the mayor is likely looking for an easy scapegoat, explained that the situation is more complicated and that the uptick in crime probably has to do with several factors, none of which have to do with the courts.

Defense attorney Michael Farkas.

“One part of it I know has to do with the fact that the coronavirus has affected regular police and DA activity,” Aidala said. “Usually, the police and the DA’s offices do big drug busts and gun busts every year in the spring, but that didn’t happen this year. So a lot of the guns would normally have been taken off of the streets and a lot of gang members would be incarcerated, but that didn’t happen.”

Aidala also suggested bail reform could play a role, and that police could be concerned with the repeal of New York Civil Rights law, section 50-a, which was repealed in June and barred access to police disciplinary records.

“I think it’s a perfect storm of everything that’s happening all at once,” Aidala said. “The bail reform, the coronavirus takedowns that didn’t happen, then the George Floyd incident and the police protests, now police officers feel they are in a precarious position where they feel they have their name written on their back when they make an arrest.

“But if the court system opened tomorrow, 100 percent, I don’t think that will have any effect on the shootings that are taking place right now,” Aidala said. “No effect whatsoever.”

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