NY Courts Cut In-Person Operations To Fight 'Horrific' Virus

By Pete Brush
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Law360 (December 7, 2020, 6:02 PM EST) -- New York's chief judge announced a plan Monday to sharply limit in-person proceedings across the state's sprawling court system amid rates of COVID-19 transmission that are rising with colder temperatures and holiday gatherings.

New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said Monday that staffing levels will be cut to 30% of normal capacity in New York City courtrooms. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore expressed hope that vaccines will soon mitigate the threat across the Empire State's 62 counties and their host of criminal, civil, appellate and specialized courts. But for the time being, she said, staffing levels will be cut to 30% of normal capacity in New York City courtrooms and to 40% elsewhere.

"By eliminating nonessential in-person appearances ... we will be able to dramatically reduce the number of people coming into our buildings and thereby curtail the person-to-person contact that allows this horrific virus to spread," she said in a video posted to the state courts' website.

Judge DiFiore pledged also to continue an ongoing technological effort to hold virtual hearings "wherever possible," except for emergency matters in criminal, family and housing courts.

Her announcement marked the latest chapter in the state's efforts to keep its judiciary system functioning after the pandemic caused a mid-March statewide shutdown. Courts managed a phased reopening as the spread of the virus slowed during warmer months, but Monday's news amounted to a rollback in the direction of the defensive posture taken in March.

Judge Fiore's comments came after Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide testing positive rate approaching 5% — a huge increase over summer months when that rate dipped below 1% and the death rate dropped to near zero. Recent weeks have seen hospitalization and death rates back on the rise, according to Cuomo's statewide updates.

"The holiday spread, I think it continues through Christmas, Hanukkah, etcetera," Cuomo said Monday at a press conference where he was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading national expert on the virus. Fauci told Cuomo that ill-advised indoor holiday gatherings are likely to cause rates to keep climbing into 2021.

"The middle of January could be a really dark time for us," Fauci said.

Amid a hiring freeze in the court system, Judge DiFiore also commented Monday on a proposed $2.25 billion spending blueprint the courts will submit to Cuomo as budget season approaches in the state capital of Albany.

New York's budget-making process is ramping up this winter amid many warnings that a decline in tourism, layoffs and other economic disruptions caused by the virus will strain the process.

"Our request ... reflects no change from our current spending level, which as you know was reduced earlier this year by $291 million," Judge DiFiore said, taking note of what she called "unprecedented fiscal challenges."

The courts' "attrition-driven approach" will see staffing levels fall to levels not seen in more than a decade, Judge DiFiore said.

"If we stay strong and united, and continue to press forward with the same kind of commitment and resilience that enabled us to navigate each and every challenge thrown our way since the beginning of this pandemic, I do believe that we may soon be back on the road to recovery," she said.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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