Judges To Return To NYC's State Courthouses As Virus Ebbs

By Frank G. Runyeon
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Law360, New York (June 9, 2020, 7:52 PM EDT) -- The chief judge of New York's state courts on Tuesday ordered judges in New York City back to the courthouses starting Wednesday as part of a first phase of reopening after nearly three months of limited, remote work due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Judges will begin returning to state courthouses in New York as of Wednesday, including the Manhattan Supreme Court building at 60 Centre St. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The head of the state court system said in an announcement that the move was a part of a plan to "safely resume more normalized court operations" after the city met benchmarks set by health officials showing a decrease in virus hospitalizations and deaths. Still, judges would continue to conduct court business remotely, and courts will screen visitors for COVID-19 symptoms and require face masks.

"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," Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said in a joint statement with Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks.

New York State court "judges, chambers staff and support staff in the city's five boroughs will return to their courthouses," according to the statement. Staff will use judges' chambers, clerks' offices and back offices in this first phase, they noted.

"Physical distancing and other steps restricting courthouse traffic will be enforced to protect the health and safety of judges and staff, attorneys, litigants and members of the public," the judges said.

While most court business will continue to be conducted remotely — or "virtually," as the court system calls videoconference appearances — self-represented litigants who do not have the proper technology will be allowed to appear in-person.

Among the new mandates are that all nonemployees "will be required to undergo COVID-19 screening," according to the statement. This will involve a battery of questions on any symptoms and may involve scanning the visitor for fever, according to state courts spokesman Lucian Chalfen.

All staff interacting with court visitors will be required to wear a mask, the top judges noted, and spaces in the courthouse "will be carefully marked to ensure proper physical distancing." In addition, courthouses will feature "acrylic barriers, hand sanitizer dispensers, and other safety features," according to the statement.

The return to the courthouses follows months of emergency measures to halt nearly all in-person elements of the state court system.

On Wednesday, March 11, the court system first restricted access to courthouses in New Rochelle — an early hotspot for COVID-19 in New York — and expanded that order statewide the following day. That Friday, the courts canceled all new jury trials.

The following Monday, March 16, the courts abruptly shut down all court business save for emergency matters. As of that date, New York state had 729 diagnosed cases of the virus, including 329 in New York City.

By the time the 350 state-run courthouses with their 1,500 courtrooms see the return of their judges on Wednesday — 87 days later — nearly 380,000 New Yorkers will have tested positive for the virus, including almost 208,000 in New York City.

Three judges, however, will not be present. Supreme Court Justices Noach Dear, Johnny Lee Baynes and Steven Milligram all died after falling ill with COVID-19.

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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