Law360 (July 17, 2020, 4:51 PM EDT) -- A New York federal judge on Friday denied public defender groups' bid to temporarily block in-person New York City criminal court proceedings, but ordered the state Office of Court Administration to explain why he shouldn't stall reopening the courts pending the outcome of the case.
In a two-page order, U.S. District Judge Andrew L. Carter Jr. denied an emergency request for a temporary restraining order by the Legal Aid Society and public defender organizations.
But he ordered the OCA to show cause why he shouldn't issue a preliminary injunction that would halt in-person appearances in New York City criminal courts pending the outcome of the case. The judge required the OCA to submit its response by Monday, and set a hearing on the matter for Tuesday.
Legal Aid and the public defender groups sued the OCA on the eve of a scheduled July 15 reopening of criminal courts in the city, slamming the office's plan to reconvene in-person, nonemergency criminal court hearings in New York City as "rushed" and "dangerous."
Legal Aid and the other groups — which include Brooklyn Defender Services, the Bronx Defenders, New York County Defender Services, Neighborhood Service of Harlem and Queens Defenders — argued that OCA's hasty decision comes as the city is still in the throes of battling COVID-19.
They allege the move violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by depriving thousands of people who have medical conditions or other disabilities the opportunity to seek and help develop necessary accommodations from the court.
On July 16, the public defender groups filed an emergency motion that asked the judge to issue a temporary restraining order against state courts to halt the return to in-person court appearances, citing the particular danger COVID-19 poses to disabled clients and attorneys alike.
The motion argued that an "ad hoc system" of appealing to individual judges has arisen and led to "inconsistent and unjust" results for individuals who have short notice that they must appear in court.
"At best, people with COVID-related disabilities are given the option of either appearing — at great risk to their health and lives — or having the appearance proceed without them," the public defender groups said.
Legal Aid and the public defender groups asked the court to issue a TRO that would return the court proceedings to the status quo as it existed before the suit was filed, so that parties are allowed to make remote video appearances to prevent discrimination and to protect public health.
But on Friday Judge Carter denied the emergency TRO bid without offering an explanation.
Jenn Rolnick Borchetta of Legal Aid said Friday that the judge's order demanding a response from the OCA is a recognition that the state court's sudden decision to haul people back into criminal courts requires urgent intervention.
"The order converted our request for a temporary order into one for longer-term relief," Borchetta said. "We're glad to get before the judge in just a few days, and we're optimistic that we'll win an injunction halting the criminal courts' discriminatory policy and requiring any court reopening plan to take people's rights and safety seriously."
A representative for the OCA declined to comment Friday.
The public defender organizations are represented by Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, Seth Packrone, Niji Jain and Thomas Scott-Railton of the Bronx Defenders, Corey Stoughton of the Legal Aid Society, Brooke Menschel of Brooklyn Defender Service, Arthur J. Robb and Ian-Paul A. Poulos of Clifton Budd & DeMaria LLP, Roxanna Gutierrez of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and Patrick Joyce.
Counsel information for the Office of Court Administration wasn't immediately available Friday.
The case is the Bronx Defenders et al. v. Office of Court Administration of the State of New York, case number 1:20-cv-05420, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
--Additional reporting by Dave Simpson, Frank G. Runyeon, Cara Salvatore and Hailey Konnath. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.
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