COVID-19 pandemic alters the justice system, some counties get green light to gradually return to courthouses

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The coronavirus pandemic isn’t just drastically changing our daily lives, it’s also altering the justice system.

UPDATE: Chambers and courtrooms have been empty since COVID-19 curtailed operations mid-March, forcing the work to go virtual.

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks announced late Wednesday afternoon, the gradual return of judges and staff to courthouses in upstate counties that have met the Governor’s established safety benchmarks. New cases will also be able to be filed in these counties electronically.

Spanning five Judicial Districts, the return to courthouses will start next week in 30 upstate counties. On Monday, May 18, staff in the following counties will be able to start returning to courthouses:

  • Broome
  • Chemung
  • Chenango
  • Delaware
  • Schuyler
  • Steuben
  • Tioga
  • Tompkins
  • Genesee
  • Livingston
  • Monroe
  • Ontario
  • Orleans
  • Seneca
  • Wayne
  • Wyoming
  • Yates
  • Fulton
  • Herkimer
  • Montgomery
  • Oneida
  • Otsego
  • Schoharie

On Wednesday, May 20, the following counties will start:

  • Clinton
  • Essex
  • Franklin
  • Hamilton
  • Jefferson
  • Lewis
  • St. Lawrence

Prior to this announcement, the court system was forced to limit operations and expand its virtual operations.

“We’re working diligently to get our existing caseload down so when the virtual floodgate opens and people can start filing new matters, we’ll be ready for them,” said State Supreme Court Justice Bernadette Romano Clark of the 5th Judicial District.

In a recent message Chief Judge Janet DiFiore delivered, she said New York State Courts are using this time to clear out a backlog of undecided motions.

“Through the first four weeks of our expanded virtual operations our judges and staff have conducted nearly 40,000 conferences and other court proceedings, settled more than one-third of the cases they conferenced, and issued over 9,000 written decisions on pending motions and other matters.”

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore

The platform may be different but they’re still tackling essential matters such as mental health hearings and arraignments, they just can’t conduct jury trials.

“People have to come to the courthouse to be part of the trial system,” said Clark. “We’ve also had discovery issues where attorneys have been having difficulty getting documents from the hospital.”

Some things may take a little longer but justice is still being served, and while the virtual world makes that possible, Clark doesn’t think it will drastically change the way the justice system works when this pandemic is behind us.

“We are doing our level best to deliver services as best we can under the circumstances and we look forward to the day we can be back in court,” said Clark.

There is also an isolation room inside the courthouse for families to watch virtual arraignments of their loved ones if they don’t have a computer at home.


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