Long Island County Courts Reopening in March 2021

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on April 5, 2021

Long Island County Courts Reopening in March 2021

Two county court systems in the New York State Unified Court System are reopening in March 2021 for in-person jury trials. In the last year, in-person proceedings have been restricted in these two courts and throughout the state as the system attempted to minimize the spread of COVID-19 while keeping the wheels of justice turning.

Suffolk and Nassau Courts Announcement

During the week of February 15, 2021, senior judges from Suffolk and Nassau county courts issued memos indicating that jury selection for both criminal and civil trials can begin on March 22, 2021. The judges say that improved COVID-19 metrics offer an opportunity to move back towards in-person proceedings.  However, both judges conveyed that they see the virtual model continuing as the norm. The office of New York Chief Judge, Janet DiFiore, expects jury service to restart on that same day throughout most of the state.

March 2020 Madness

It’s been a long road back for New York courts since restrictions first began in March 2020. Among the earliest closures, the New York City Criminal Court and the New York City Family Court temporarily moved to a virtual model the week of March 23, 2020. In this new setup, only a skeleton staff remained on-premises to process critical paperwork. This meant all judges, attorneys, litigants, or agency personnel had to work virtually using videoconference, telephone, and electronic filing systems.

All court operations outside New York City were localized to a single court in each county, per a March 19, 2020 memorandum. Courts across the state implemented strict protocols for screening persons entering courthouses for the coronavirus.

Reopening Phases

The New York Unified Court System established a structure for the transition back to in-person court proceedings in four phases. In phase one, judges and staff returned to courthouses to conduct primarily a virtual model.  Phase two allowed in-person proceedings for family matters. Then phase three expanded in-person proceedings to several criminal law processes and in child support matters. Phase four allowed in-person proceedings for civil matters in early October 2020, criminal matters in early November 2020, and child permanency hearings, small claims, and civil matters with self-representation. In counties outside of New York City, in-person grand jury proceedings started on July 13, 2020, and on August 10, 2020, in New York City. By July 20, 2020, Nassau and Suffolk courthouses were in Phase 4.

Winter Setbacks

On November 16, 2020, Chief Justice Janet Fiori announced the temporary postponement of scheduling new jury trials. Her memo also halted new jury summons for the state. Justice Fiori’s decisions were driven by spiking COVID-19 infection rates, growing community coronavirus clusters, and the forthcoming holiday season.

Justice Fiori allowed jury trials and bench trials already underway to proceed to completion. However, newly commenced bench trials and hearings would have to proceed virtually. Given the criticality of grand juries to the functioning of the criminal justice system, the Chief Judge permitted sitting grand juries to continue operating for the time being.

As fears of holiday COVID-19 spread continued, DiFiore cut in-person court staffing to 40% or less on Long Island and in other courts outside of New York City. The system imposed further restrictions on December 7, 2020, stating “all non-essential personal appearances in civil courts are temporarily suspended, and a limited number of in-person essential and emergency matters will be heard in criminal, family, and housing court.”

Looking to Spring 2021

Though statewide infection rates have dipped, the Long Island court system has reported 60 confirmed cases since the beginning of the year despite the virtual model and court staff minimization. This is in addition to the Governor’s announcement in January 2021 that the highly contagious COVID-19 variant known as B.1.1.7 has been detected in the state.

Suffolk and Nassau court leaders are not blind to this—both reopening announcements emphasized that the court systems would be nimble to adapt to any changes in coronavirus conditions going forward.

The Future for New York Courts

When the coronavirus is at long last under control, or as much under control as it will get, will New York courts snap right back to in-person proceedings? A Commission to Reimagine the Future of New York’s Courts has recommended an evaluation and analysis of the COVID-19  virtual proceedings experience to determine “their future role in the New York State Courts and ensuring the rights and needs of all parties are addressed.” Though it seems likely that the virtual model is here to stay in some capacity. It’s likely that New York and other jurisdictions are heading towards a future where a mix of virtual and in-person models rule the day for court proceedings.

 

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