SDNY Closes Courthouses Until Jan. 15 Amid COVID-19 Spike

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (November 30, 2020, 10:33 PM EST) -- The Southern District of New York will be shuttering its courthouses to the public and canceling all in-person proceedings until at least mid-January as COVID-19 cases surge in the region and across the country, according to a standing order issued Monday.

The closure will begin Dec. 1 and last until Jan. 15, Chief Judge Colleen McMahon held in the order. All jury trials will be rescheduled, and all civil proceedings will be conducted remotely, the judge said. Criminal matters — like arraignments, pleas and sentencings — will also be conducted remotely, she said.

Certain cases may still be heard in person if the defendant declines to waive the right to be physically present or the court determines that a matter cannot be postponed in conformity with the coronavirus relief legislation dubbed the CARES Act, Judge McMahon said.

"This temporary curtailment of operations is required to preserve public health and safety in light of the recent spike of coronavirus cases, both nationally and within the Southern District of New York," she said.

The clerk's offices will remain open, but the public counters will only be staffed for three hours a day, according to the order. New cases, motions and other applications should be filed remotely, Judge McMahon held.

It's a return to restrictions first implemented in March, which saw hearings and proceedings in New York City's federal courts moved to a video conference or teleconference format. The main Brooklyn courthouse also implemented video kiosk temperature checks, mandatory masks and social distancing, as well as a battery of questions for those seeking entry, as it has slowly reopened the courthouses.

On Nov. 13, New York state court officials postponed new jury trials and grand jury proceedings amid increasing coronavirus cases. Prospective jurors for new criminal or civil trials will not be summoned, while trials that are already underway are expected to proceed, for now, until they conclude, according to guidance circulated by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks.

New York's Office of Court Administration opted to implement the changes following guidance from its epidemiologist and from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent directives that limit the assembly of groups of people in private and public spaces, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the office, told Law360 at the time.

The coronavirus has forced several courthouses to close in recent months. California's Mendocino County Superior Court closed its two locations Nov. 9 for a week after two separate COVID-19 exposures were reported the week of Nov. 2.

Earlier in November, Chief Judge Algenon L. Marbley shuttered the Potter Stewart Courthouse in the Southern District of Ohio after a deputy U.S. marshal who works at the Cincinnati location tested positive.

In September, the chief judge for the Eastern District of New York shut down its main Brooklyn courthouse after court officers tested positive for COVID-19. The courthouse has since reopened.

And in August, the Central District of California, the most populous federal judicial district in the nation, announced that it would mostly re-close its courthouses to the public and that jury trials would continue to be postponed, as COVID-19 cases surged in the region.

Both New York's southern and eastern district courts have banned anyone exposed to the virus from their courthouses.

--Additional reporting by Kevin Penton, Frank G. Runyeon and Stewart Bishop. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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