Federal Judge Axes Suit Over NY Courts Reopening Plan

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (July 28, 2020, 11:16 PM EDT) -- A federal judge in Manhattan tossed a lawsuit seeking to block New York's state court administrators from going forward with a recent return to in-person criminal proceedings in New York City, saying it wasn't the place of the federal judiciary to interfere in a state-level issue.

U.S. District Judge Andrew L. Carter Jr. said Supreme Court and Second Circuit precedent direct that federal courts cannot meddle in affairs that are rightly up to states to decide.

"This court does not, and indeed cannot, dictate if, when, and how state criminal courts reopen or schedule in-person appearances," Judge Carter said. "To do so would violate fundamental principles of comity and federalism, and would result in federal supervision of state procedures and proceedings."

Counsel for New York's Office of Court Administration urged the judge last week to toss the case, and pushed back on the claim by the public defender organizations challenging the move that it denies vulnerable defendants access to the justice system. The office told Judge Carter that the pandemic's disruption of the courts has led to a "backlog of 39,000 cases citywide," including "nearly 12,000 unindicted felonies," and that once again requiring in-person appearances poses no imminent harm.

The Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Legal Aid Society, New York County Defender Services, Neighborhood Service of Harlem and Queens Defenders had argued the courts' decision was "rushed" and has led to "chaotic" implementation of policies that violate federal civil rights protections including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

While Judge Carter denied the groups' initial bid for a temporary restraining order earlier this month, he immediately directed the state court administrators to explain why he shouldn't issue a preliminary injunction to stall the reopening of New York City's courts pending the outcome of the case.

The public defenders put out a statement Tuesday saying they are "enormously disappointed" with the court's decision.

"The decision by the Southern District of New York to allow this unlawful plan to continue violates our clients' rights and exposes the public to unnecessary risk," they said. "We will explore the options available to prevent further harm."

A spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration told Law360 on Wednesday that the office is happy with outcome. 

"We are pleased with Judge Carter's decision allowing us to continue deliberate, measured and careful resumption of in-person appearances," the spokesperson said.

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, Diane Lee Houk and Jonathan S. Abady of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, and Patrick Joyce.

The Office of Court Administration is represented in-house by Elizabeth A. Forman and Anthony Perri, and by Adrienne J. Kerwin of the New York State Attorney General's Office.

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 Frank G. Runyeon. Editing by Breda Lund.

Update: This article has been updated to include comment from the Office of Court Administration. 

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

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Case Information

Case Title

The Bronx Defenders et al v. Office Of Court Administration et al


Case Number

1:20-cv-05420

Court

New York Southern

Nature of Suit

Civil Rights: Americans with Disabilities - Other

Judge

Andrew L. Carter, Jr

Date Filed

July 14, 2020

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