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Judges Stong and Spodek talk effects of pandemic with Volunteer Lawyers Project

Hon. Robin Sheares to take over in late Judge Noach Dear’s part

August 3, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) hosted a pair of judges — Hon. Elizabeth Stong from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern Division and Hon. Ellen Spodek from the Kings County Supreme Court, Civil Term — for its “Chat and Chew” series on Friday.

The judges each spoke with VLP employees and volunteers to explain how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their courts and what the immediate future holds. Afterward, they answered questions from the nearly 40 people in attendance.

“This is our second ‘Chat and Chew’ so we’re really happy to do this series and it’s nice to see staff, interns and the judges taking part in this,” said Heidi Lee Henderson, the CEO of the VLP.

The VLP’s first-ever “Chat and Chew” took place on May 1, and it gave the organization an opportunity to celebrate Law Day while also discussing problems and opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Sidney Cherubin, the director of legal services, said the program is one the VLP hopes to host regularly.

Hon. Ellen Spodek sits in the medical malpractice part in the Kings County Supreme Court. For two months, she took over as the interim administrative judge of that court during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.

“We have Judges Stong and Spodek on the Zoom call, and I wanted to invite them so they can tell us a little bit about what’s going on in their courts, how they’ve handled the pandemic and what they see going forward in the state of the courts,” he said.

Justice Stong opened by explaining that she has often worked closely with the VLP because she feels that it plays an important role in the community, and added that, since the pandemic, it has only become more important.

She added that the legal community relies on the back-and-forth between attorneys and between the bench and the bar associations. For this reason, she explained, events like “Chat and Chews” are important because those exchanges aren’t happening similarly in virtual hearings.

“We’re not holding any proceedings in our courtroom,” Justice Stong said. “We haven’t had any hearings in person since March 16 … We are a busy court, we are all remote, we are holding our hearings telephonically.”

Hon. Elizabeth Stong said that her court is mostly operating via telephone conferences during the pandemic. She explained how not being “in person” is slowing her court’s efforts down, but added that events like the “Chat and Chew” are a great opportunity to change ideas and give feedback.

Justice Stong then explained that her court is no longer looking at the pandemic as something that will be over in a matter of weeks. She said that instead they see this as the “new normal” and are trying to find solutions to do as much as possible online or by phone.

“This is a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Justice Stong said. “Our courts are going to be there for you and for our clients. We need to be there for each other too.”

Justice Spodek, who briefly took over the Supreme Court as interim administrative judge in April and May when Justice Lawrence Knipel became ill with the coronavirus, has become something of a virtual hearings expert. She reported to the group that the court system, which relies heavily on Skype for Business currently, is transitioning to Microsoft Teams by October, but she is going to start in a couple of weeks as a pilot judge.

“There is a dichotomy in the court between civil and criminal,” Spodek said. “The criminal judges are getting back in court every day, they’re encouraged to return in person. On the civil side, we’re still going to be virtual for a lot of what’s going on.”

Hon. Robin Sheares is expected to take over the foreclosure part in Brooklyn following the death of Hon. Noach Dear, Justice Spodek announced.

“Skype has a lot of problems,” she later added. “Not only signing on, but it’s a lot of echoes, people can’t get on, people are thrown off. We did a conference this morning and my secretary was all of a sudden gone.”

Justice Spodek explained that some things on the civil side will indeed be carried out in person, though. For instance, she explained, guardianship cases often need to be conducted in person so that the judge can ensure that the person being interviewed is not being coached or influenced.

When someone on the call asked Justice Spodek about the foreclosure part, she said that Justice Mark Partnow had been handling those cases since the death of Justice Noach Dear, but that Hon. Robin Sheares is likely going to take over that part.

“They’re assigning another judge to Judge Dear’s foreclosure part,” Spodek said. “I believe it’s going to be Robin Sheares. The whole inventory was moved to Judge Partnow, so now it’s going to have to be moved to Judge Sheares.”

Court Attorney Referee Diana Szochet, who worked in the matrimonial part, said that the court currently has a backlog of 11,000 uncontested matrimonial cases, and she is part of a group of people who are working on clearing those.

“I predicted at the beginning that people being enclosed in their homes would increase the number of divorce filings but that’s what we’re seeing,” Szochet said. “There are certainly a good number of people who are filing. A lot are uncontested and those are the ones we’re tackling now.

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