When courthouses across New York State ceased non-essential operations on March 17, few thought that COVID-19 would completely upend the day-to-day operations of the court.
In a recent webinar, Hon. George J. Silver, the deputy chief administrative judge for the New York City courts, spoke to over 150 participants about his role in helping the courts adapt to life amidst the global pandemic, what courts will look like as more in-person operations come back online, and how the technology that helped court operations during the shutdown is likely to play a role going forward.
The webinar, co-sponsored by the Torts, Insurance, & Compensation Law (TICL) and Young Lawyers sections of the New York State Bar Association, was hosted by Alyssa J. Pantzer, an associate at Herzfeld and Rubin in New York City. Pantzer serves as chair of the Automobile Liability Committee in the TICL section.
“This type of situation is nothing anyone of us has lived through,” Silver said. “This is uncharted territory and it is a fast-moving situation and every day we’re facing a new challenge but out of these challenges we’re learning from it and learning what the new court system is going to be like.”
Where Are The Courts Now?
Even though the court buildings in the five boroughs of New York City may have been closed for nearly three months, e-filing and some conferences were taking place during the shutdown. Silver noted the exceptional work done by the judges and non-judicial staff to keep operations open so that the people of New York could come to the courts and seek justice.
At the direction of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, all of the civil judges in the counties of New York City started an open motions program where each of the judges significantly reduced the backlog of their motions.
“Kings County is the first county down to zero backlogged motions,” Silver said. “Judges in the other counties have also done a miraculous job of reducing their motions, so lawyers can be expecting to get decisions from the court very soon.”
Each phase of the court reopening plan has allowed more operations to take place and as all of New York City’s courts begin to enter phase four, Silver notes that attorneys should expect to see some big differences in how some of the significant courtrooms look, due to the installation of plexiglass.
“As a lawyer for many years, one of the things I enjoyed was the interaction with the court staff and my fellow lawyers,” Silver said. “You’re able to develop long-lasting relationships by hanging around and just talking with people and unfortunately due to our current circumstances we can’t safely do that yet.”
With restrictions on large in-person gatherings continuing for the foreseeable future, the court is looking at ways to cut down on the number of court appearances. Silver noted that there are preliminary discussions about how exactly they can accomplish that, including the formation of a committee comprised of administrative judges to formulate a uniform preliminary conference order for the city parts and general litigation part. There are also discussions about sending a ready-made order with dates on it when someone files for a preliminary conference, including a compliance date.
“Potentially we’re looking at a compliance conference where if lawyers can agree, there will be a fillable online form… that will be emailed to a specific place in the compliance part, where a judge will stamp it and send it back,” said Silver. “On this form, we’re hoping to include a part about alternative dispute resolution and a part where a discovery dispute can be written, which then could be resolved by a virtual conference.”
When it comes to technology and virtual conferences lasting into a post-COVID-19 world where effective vaccines are available, Judge Silver noted the significant gains the court has had in terms of integrating technology into operations.
“We don’t want to lose track of the significant gains we’ve had during the pandemic,” Silver said. “To the extent that we can continue using it, we certainly will, as it has been very effective.”
Jury Trials and Other Alternatives
The big question in all circles of the legal community is when will jury trials resume and how can they be done safely? Judge Silver said that beginning in the first week of August, certain judges will be starting to conduct summary trials, which are summary jury trials without the juries. They will follow the same rules as a summary jury trial and already there are 15 cases docketed.
In the Supreme Court in the Bronx, Silver said currently there is a continued trial going on where 15 jurors agreed to come back. The court is of course following social distancing protocols and, by all accounts, the trial is going well.
“One of the great things I’ve seen throughout the pandemic has been the willingness for attorneys to work together and provide access to justice for both people that are suing and being sued,” Silver said.
The conversation about COVID-19 and the courts will continue on August 4, when Deputy Chief Administrative Judge Vito Caruso discusses what courthouses will look like in Upstate New York.
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