As NYC's Courthouses Reopen, Virtual Court Will Remain

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360, New York (June 10, 2020, 10:37 PM EDT) -- New York City's state court judges returned to their chambers on Wednesday, but an administrative civil court judge whose division has been bustling away during the COVID-19 pandemic said some remote hearings may become the norm.

Administrative Judge Deborah A. Kaplan, who oversees civil matters in the state Supreme Court for New York County, told Law360 in an interview Wednesday that her judges have rendered 2,600 remote decisions on motions and settled 2,000 cases within the past month. Her division has used video-linked "virtual" hearings for a wide range of matters — including contract litigation in the commercial division and emergency hospital proceedings that forced unwilling patients from their beds.

A clerk in the help center for self-represented litigants at the 60 Centre St. courthouse uses personal protective equipment on the first day of phased reopening of New York City courts as the pandemic ebbs. (Frank G. Runyeon | Law360)

"We started to do more hearings remotely and virtually before this happened, but now there's a much greater understanding, comfort level, and commitment to exploring other ways" to use videoconferencing, a masked Judge Kaplan said. "It's great for people who are older — it may be difficult for them to come to court — or people with disabilities."

Chief Clerk Denis Reo, chiming in from a chair spaced away from the judge's inside the chamber, said the shutdown showed what's possible in terms of working virtually.

"We're not going to be taking working copies on motions anymore, per Judge Kaplan's directive. I think our hope is that the mental hygiene cases will continue virtually — hospital hearings," he said.

"We're going to continue to do all of those, remotely," Judge Kaplan said.

For the time being, self-represented litigants who don't have the requisite technology can use the courthouse's setup to appear before a remote judge, attorneys, court reporter, clerk and anyone else. There's also one courtroom that's being prepared "as a last resort," Reo said, with plastic shields and ample social-distancing signage, in case a truly in-person hearing is required in this reopening phase.

Judge Kaplan noted proudly that her judges worked efficiently from home under difficult circumstances.

The New York State Supreme Court's civil division in Manhattan is one of the busiest courts in the country, handling 35,000 cases at any given time, Judge Kaplan said. But there was little human evidence of the deluge of legal action the court was fielding, even as its doors reopened.

The courts' first day back to in-person operations was largely quiet at the stately civil courthouse at 60 Centre Street. Just 124 visitors — eight attorneys and 116 other members of the public — walked the halls there Wednesday. The civil term saw nearly all of its 59 judges show up as well as its 77 staff members, Reo said, in addition to another 35 staffers in the county clerk's office.

By 4 p.m., Justice Milton Tingling, the county clerk, told Law360 his office handled just 41 transactions.

If people were scarce, social distancing measures at 60 Centre St. were in ample supply, including snaking pathways indicated by myriad signs on the walls and multicolored tape on the floors. A tour of the courthouse showed a reduced workforce back at their desks with most sporting surgical masks or other face coverings, as mandated by state Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

But it didn't appear that all the chief judge's safety measures touted in Tuesday's announcement were in place. There was no "required" COVID-19 screening for visitors before entering several courthouses, with court officers at 60 Centre St. and 111 Centre St., and the criminal courthouse at 100 Centre St., saying they had received no direction or equipment to do so.

Judge Kaplan said she hadn't been directed to do such screening, but noted the large red signs telling people with symptoms not to enter remained prominently placed at the entrances.

"We continue to enhance all health and safety protocols in all our New York City courthouses," a spokesman for the state courts said. "Plexiglass barriers, masks, face shields, disinfectant and gloves are all in supply and being distributed."

--Editing by Amy Rowe.

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