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Law360 (June 12, 2020, 9:22 PM EDT) -- A group of 16 New York state senators on Friday sent a letter to the state's chief judge urging her to delay the reopening of New York City's housing courts until the legislators have assurances that doing so will not pose a public health risk.
Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, and her colleagues urged Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to reassess the timeline for reopening in light of the coronavirus pandemic, two days after 19 legal services providers voiced similar concerns to the judge.
Judges and limited staff including interpreters and clerks returned to the city's civil and housing courts on Wednesday.
"We are writing to express our concern that reopening New York City Housing Court to in-person proceedings prematurely could pose a significant public health risk to litigants, attorneys, and court personnel, and a particular risk for many of those already disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 — low-income tenants of color living in communities hardest hit by the pandemic and older adults," the legislators wrote.
Krueger decided to weigh in and collect signatures from her colleagues after reading the service providers' letter, spokesperson Justin Flagg said.
The legislators also urged the court to collaborate with legal service providers and city agencies to make sure there is a plan for processing a "significant volume" of emergency rent assistance applications.
As courts say they will conduct most proceedings virtually for the foreseeable future, the senators also asked for a plan to meet the needs of tenants with limited access to technology, and those without legal representation.
In the last quarter of Fiscal Year 2019, 68% of tenants in housing court were unrepresented, according to the letter.
The Office of Court Administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. In a recent press release, the office defended its reopening timeline as aligned with Gov. Andrew Cuomo's benchmarks for reopening the state, and said space will be set aside in courthouses for tenants who "lack the technology to access services remotely."
"We will rigorously monitor safety protocols and day-to-day operations, carefully balancing the justice needs of those served by our New York City courts with the safety of all those who work in and visit courthouses in the five boroughs," DiFiore said in a statement.
Cuomo's blanket moratorium on evictions is in place at least until June 20, and both the courts and attorneys have said they expect a flood of new cases as the city begins to reopen.
"Many of us have been to the housing courts during 'normal times' and can bear witness to the problems of overcrowding in the hallways and the courtrooms," the senators wrote Friday. "Careful planning must take place to make certain that social distancing protocols can truly be followed in cramped housing court facilities where the majority of tenants are unrepresented."
Signers to Friday's letter include Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Jamaal T. Bailey in the Bronx; John C. Liu and Jessica Ramos in Queens; and Zellnor Myrie and Julia Salazar in Brooklyn. All are Democrats.
Unions for court officers, clerks and interpreters have also told Law360 that they do not believe housing court is ready to safely reopen. Concerns range from outdated HVAC systems and cramped quarters to inadequate sanitation and Plexiglas barriers to separate personnel from court visitors.
Attorneys representing landlords have been more receptive to the court administration office's timeline.
"The way they're planning on reopening is going to be very slow with very few people back in the building ... so I have no problem with what their thoughts are at the moment," attorney Michael Rosenthal, partner at Hertz Cherson & Rosenthal PC and president of the Kings County Housing Court Bar Association, told Law360 on Tuesday.
--Additional reporting by Frank G. Runyeon. Editing by Bruce Goldman.
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