Legal service providers and union members rallied outside Brooklyn Supreme Court with elected officials earlier today to oppose the decision by the Office of Court Administration (OCA) to reopen some of New York City’s courts.
They say that the courts shouldn’t reopen for in-person appearances because it isn’t safe while the coronavirus is still ongoing, and that it if the OCA goes forward with the re-openings it will disproportionately impact low-income New Yorkers and people of color.
The Legal Aid Society and the New York County Defender Services have both filed a lawsuit to block the OCA from re-opening courts, saying that the planned re-openings constitute a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and that it is unlawful to force people to go to court with the potential to expose themselves to the coronavirus.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, however, during Friday’s City Hall press briefing with Mayor Bill de Blasio where they both announced a plan to end gun violence, said that crime is going up because the courts have been closed. For example, he pointed out that currently there are 2,000-open gun cases in the city.
“We don’t necessarily need more gun arrests. We need the people that are caught to be prosecuted fully, and then we need the court system to get them off the street as quickly as possible,” said Shea.
Although Councilman Ben Kallos was delayed to this morning’s rally, he issued a statement challenging the NYPD’s recent assertion that crime is rising because the courts are closed.
“The NYPD's insistence that crime is increasing due to the courts being closed is just not true. Courts have processed over 50,000 cases since the state closed,” began Kallos.
“We must support our sisters and brothers from the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys and 1199SEIU in calling for courts not to reopen for in-person appearances until there is an adequate safety plan in place and dialogue with the legal services organizations and the unions whose members will put their lives on the line to attend court.”
According to a statement from OCA, the agency is calendaring approximately ten in-person cases per day in each court.
But Lucy Herschel, a paralegal with 199SEIU, said she and her colleagues have been filing motions and conducting hearings remotely for the past four months and that there’s no reason that they can’t continue to do so.
“All of them can be handled remotely without anyone having to step foot in this courthouse, protecting the lives of our members, the attorneys and our clients,” said Herschel.
In an interview, Jared Trujillo, President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers, said that the unions want a dialogue with OCA about how to make conditions safe in the court.
“It’s really problematic that OCA was working with us, was working with legal service providers, until the [NYPD] Commissioner made a statement that the courts were not working and that’s what led to an uptick in crime. That’s fundamentally and emphatically untrue,” said Trujillo.