Brooklyn Boro

Public defenders denied in bid to halt non-emergency in-person court proceedings amid COVID-19

July 30, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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Two weeks ago, local public defender services from each of the five boroughs sued the NYS Office of Court Administration to stop it from resuming non-emergency and non-essential, in-person court appearances.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in the Southern District denied a request to halt the resumed proceedings in New York City.

“OCA’s plan to reopen the courts for non-emergency, in-person proceedings forces our clients to choose between their health and safety and their freedom, and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act in doing so,” said a statement issued by the six legal aid groups in the lawsuit.

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“Moreover, the cases OCA seeks to schedule are not urgent: the people who are forced to come to court are people already at liberty. They were, like the rest of us, trying to work, care for our families, and stay safe. Their cases have not been indicted. There is no grand jury action. There is no reason to force anyone to pile onto public transit and into courtrooms for cases that are going to be adjourned, when the same result can be achieved over a virtual hearing.”

The statement went on to point out that on the first day of in-person cases, every case on the calendar was adjourned until a later date anyway.

“Put plainly: OCA’s plan puts our clients — mostly low-income New Yorkers of color — at enormous risk for no compelling reason,” said the statement. “We are disappointed that the Southern District of New York allowed OCA to continue down this reckless road.”

The six legal aid groups involved in the lawsuit were The Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Bronx Defenders, New York County Defender Services, The Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and the Queens Defenders.

The complaint argued that resuming non-emergency and non-essential court proceedings violates the ADA by forcing defendants and attorneys with preexisting medical conditions to visit courthouses for arraignments and conferences. They also complain that OCA “rushed” the reopening plan.

The court system officially shut down all in-person appearances after March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Criminal Court and Family Court remained open for emergency and non-essential proceedings and the court system slowly reopened virtually through April, May and June.

On July 20, the Kings County Supreme Court resumed in-person appearances for non-emergency and non-essential cases for the first time. Grand juries are expected to reconvene on Aug. 10, and jury summonses have already been sent out in the mail.

The court system has maintained that it has a constitutional duty to reopen, and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore has followed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s lead in a phased reopening schedule based on his health and safety benchmarks.

As part of the reopening plan, temperature checks have been implemented at the entrances, masks are required for all visitors and any court personnel who interact with the public, and social distancing measures have been put in place, including plexiglass partitions.

The Supreme Court, Criminal Term is hearing its cases in the larger ceremonial courtroom to assist with distancing, and the Housing Court usually located at 141 Livingston St., which is notoriously cramped, has been relocated to the Supreme Court at 320 Jay St.

“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,” Chief Judge DiFiore said during her weekly address to the legal community on Monday July 20.

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