Court Closures Due to Coronavirus
It seems like everything is shutting down in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, to an extent never before seen in modern history. Some services, however, are essential, such as grocery stores, medical treatments, and the court system. Even the New York court system, however, has cut its operations down to “essential services” on the order of Governor Andrew Como, and the federal courts sitting in New York have followed suit.
The following is a rundown of which services are and are not being offered by courts in New York. Be aware that the situation is rapidly evolving, and that as a consequence, some of this information may have changed by the time you read this.
New York State Court System
As of March 16th, all “nonessential” court functions are suspended. See below for which functions are considered non-essential. Please note that, to the extent that the court enjoys discretion in determining whether a matter is “essential” enough to be handled, the court will attempt to minimize the necessary court appearances.
Pending Criminal and Civil Trials: Pending civil trials (lawsuits, for example) and criminal trials will continue without interruption until they are concluded.
New Criminal and Civil Trials: No new criminal or civil trials will start until further notice from the courts. Keep in mind that, in the case of criminal trials, some of the defendants awaiting trial are currently incarcerated because they are being held without bail or because they cannot afford bail.
Special Courtrooms: Within New York state but outside of New York City, special courtrooms have been established in designated courthouses to handle essential matters in a consolidated manner (multiple similar cases, for example, may be handled in a single proceeding for the sake of efficiency). Inside New York City, courthouses will remain open, but only to handle essential matters.
Essential civil matters: New York state courts will handle essential civil matters such as guardianship applications and civil commitments. The court enjoys discretion in determining which matters are considered “essential”.
Evictions: As of March 16th, all eviction proceedings are suspended throughout the state until further notice.
New York City Housing Court: The NYC Housing Court will continue to handle essential matters such as landlord lockouts, repair orders, serious violations of the housing code, etc.
Non-trial criminal matters (Superior Court): The court reserves the right to handle applications concerning essential matters in its own discretion. In addition:
- The resolution of criminal matters (motions, petitions, etc.) involving a felony defendant who is not currently in custody will be postponed until further notice from the courts.
- If a felony defendant is currently in custody, the matter can either be postponed or resolved through a video hearing if the location has access to video technology. Video hearings are available throughout New York City.
Criminal matters (lower courts): In New York City, essential criminal matters handled by the lower courts will proceed through video hearings, while outside of New York City, these matters will proceed to the extent that available local technology allows. The same applies to other criminal matters handled by the lower courts, such as petitions for orders of protection.
Arraignments: In New York City, arraignments will proceed through video hearings, while outside of New York City, arraignments will proceed by videoconferencing to the extent that available local technology allows. In New York City, two arraignment sites (the Midtown Community Court and the Red Hook Community Court) have been designated for video hearings on behalf of people thought to be at particular risk for COVID-19 infection.
Family Courts: The family courts will hear only essential matters such as those involving the welfare of a child, juvenile delinquents, family offenses such as domestic violence, and child support matters.
The Surrogate’s Court: The Surrogate’s Court will handle only essential matters as determined in the court’s discretion.
Court of Claims: The Court of Claims will handle only essential matters as determined in the court’s discretion.
Toll-Free Hotline: The courts will establish a toll-free hotline, open 24/7, to answer questions about court operations during the coronavirus crisis.
Federal Courts (United States District Court for the Northern District of New York)
The US federal courts operate on a completely different system than the New York state courts do, since they answer to federal authority rather than to state authority. Nevertheless, many of the same decisions have been made concerning the scope of the courts’ operation during the coronavirus crisis.
Jury Trials: All jury trials are suspended until April 30th. This suspension applies to both civil matters (lawsuits, for example) and criminal matters. Jury selection procedures have also been suspended for the same length of time. The court may order exceptions to these suspensions on a case by case basis.
Criminal trials: Criminal trials are suspended until April 30th, including bench trials (non-jury trials).
Criminal matters before magistrates: Criminal matters before magistrates such as initial appearances, arraignments, the issuance of search warrants, etc., will continue as usual. Nevertheless, the court may, in its discretion, decide to hear certain matters over the telephone or through video conferencing.
All courtroom activities not related to an ongoing case are suspended until April 30th (group tours, bar association meetings, naturalization ceremonies, etc.).
The District Court Clerk’s Office hours will be restricted to 10:00 am to 2:00 pm Monday to Friday.
Courthouse entry restrictions: As of March 16, 2020, no one will be allowed to enter a courthouse if they:
- Have traveled abroad within the last two weeks;
- Live with or have close contact with anyone who has traveled abroad within the last two weeks;
- Have been asked to self-quarantine by a healthcare professional;
- Have been diagnosed with COVD-19;
- Have been in contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19; or
- Has a fever, cough, or shortness of breath.
If you have an appointment to appear in court but are unable to enter because of the foregoing restrictions, please contact your attorney, the Court, your probation officer, your pretrial services officer, the jury department, or the Public Defender’s Office as appropriate according to the nature of your case or concern.
Except for the suspensions listed above, the business of the Court will proceed as usual. The Court will continue to be reachable by telephone and mail, and electronic filings will still be accepted. The April 30th deadline may be extended if circumstances so demand.
At this point, important issues have not been specifically resolved, including the status of court-ordered personal service of process (notices of court hearings delivered in person to defendants).
Mediation and Arbitration
If you are involved in a civil case, you might prefer to resolve your dispute through mediation or arbitration rather than to wait a long time for a trial. Even mediation and arbitration have been affected, however. The American Arbitration Association, for example, will not hold arbitration hearings in its facilities until at least April 17th, and many of the nation’s mediation organizations have followed suit.
Of course, depending on the nature of your dispute, it may be possible to resolve your dispute by videoconferencing and mail, rather than by a physical hearing. Otherwise, you might consider moving the venue of the arbitration or mediation to an alternate location where it is easier to practice social distancing.
Legal Effects of Long Trial Backlogs
The suspension of all trials during the coronavirus crisis makes sense, but it will have cascading effects that endure even after the crisis ends. The 6th Amendment grants criminal defendants the right to a speedy trial. That right applies whether the defendant is being prosecuted by a state or a federal court, and whether the defendant is out on bail or in jail awaiting trial.
For the moment, the coronavirus crisis can be used to justify a two-month postponement of a defendant’s trial, notwithstanding his right to a speedy trial. The real problem will come once federal courts become overwhelmed with a backlog of cases due to the suspension of trials during the coronavirus crisis. If the courts cannot catch up within a reasonable time, the charges against many criminal defendants might simply have to be dismissed.
Another more disturbing problem involves defendants who are in jail waiting for trial during the coronavirus crisis. Even though these defendants have not been convicted of the crimes they are charged with, they are still incarcerated – perhaps in crowded conditions that are ideal for the spread of a virus. If their trial is delayed for long enough, they might agree to plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit just to get out of jail sooner.
The effect of the coronavirus crisis on civil matters, such as lawsuits, is not expected to be nearly as serious. Nevertheless, the inevitable backlog is likely to encourage parties to settle rather than to stand in the back of a long line for a trial.
We’ll Be Here When You Need Us
If you have a concern or a question, there is no need to wait until the crisis is over to inquire about it. Contact E. Stewart Jones Hacker Murphy, through our online contact page or by telephone, to schedule a free initial consultation. The consultation can be done by phone – there is no need to come to our office during the quarantine period.