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COVID-19, The “New Normal” and the New York Court System

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  • Posted on: May 27 2020

Last week, the New York State court system, which is following Governor Cuomo’s plan to reopen the economy on a regional, phased-in basis, resumed in-person court operations in 40 counties in the six regions meeting the public health benchmarks for economic reopening: the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, Southern Tier, North Country, Central New York and Western New York regions. As of May 26, 2020, eight additional counties in the Capital Region restored in-person court operations. By the end of the week, the Mid-Hudson and Long Island regions are expected to join the foregoing regions in restoring in-person operations – the former to resume in-person operations on May 28 and the latter to resume operations on May 29. In total, the court system has resumed in-person courthouse operations in 48 of the state’s 62 counties.

Although in-person operations have resumed in these regions, Chief Judge DiFiore stressed in her weekly update video (here) that the resumption of operations “is not a return to business as usual.” Instead, said Chief Judge DiFiore, it is “a return to a ‘new normal’ defined by limited courthouse traffic and procedures and safety measures designed to reduce the risk of virus transmission and ensure the health and safety of judges, court staff and all court users and visitors.” Thus, the court system will continue to “rely[ ] on virtual technology to conduct as much court business as possible” and implement “safety measures” where in-person operations have been restored, “including: COVID screening; the wearing of masks by all who enter our courthouses; social distancing protocols; availability of PPE; strict cleaning and sanitizing standards; and the installation of plexiglass partitions in strategic courthouse locations.”

Chief Judge DiFiore noted that the court system took “a[]nother important step in [its] return to a new normal” on May 25, by allowing “the filing of new lawsuits and court matters previously classified as ‘nonessential.’” Thus, new lawsuits can be filed in all 62 counties of the state.

In allowing new filings, Chief Judge DiFiore explained that in the “regions that have reopened, new matters must be filed electronically in those courts that use [the] NYSCEF e-filing system, and by mail in those courts where NYSCEF is unavailable.” In the regions “that have not yet met the benchmarks for reopening, new matters may now be filed electronically in those courts that use the NYSCEF system.” Chief Judge DiFiore encouraged those looking for more information about the filing of new matters to visit the court system’s website, where visitors can review Administrative Order 114 (here). 

Chief Judge DiFiore also noted the progress judges have made to reduce the backlog of pending, undecided motions. In courts outside New York City, all but one county has reduced the backlog to zero, and, as to that county, it “is fast approaching zero”, said Chief Judge DiFiore. In New York City, the “backlog has been reduced by more than half.”

Finally, the Court of Appeals announced (here) that it will begin the transition to in-person courthouse operations. By May 28, 2020, the full complement of Albany-based Court staff will return to Court of Appeals Hall. During its June 2020 session, the Court will be available to hear in-person oral argument from counsel, following appropriate safety protocols. However, the courtroom will be closed to the public. The Court will webcast oral arguments in real time.

Court of Appeals Hall otherwise will not be open to public visitors until further notice. Filings, including applications for stays, will not be accepted in person at the Clerk’s Office until further notice. Persons who wish to file papers in person should call the Clerk’s Office at 518-455-7700 for instructions on alternative ways to file. The Court will continue to accept submissions by mail and, as permitted by its Rules, electronically. Attorneys, litigants and the public are encouraged to check the Court’s website (here) for updates on Court procedures. 

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