The committee to reshape the future of New York’s courts will hold public hearings in October in Buffalo and Manhattan on the state’s court system’s approach to the pandemic.
Public hearings will give the public an opportunity to hear testimony about the impact of practices and protocols adopted by the state court system during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of technology by state courts, the integration of in-person and virtual practices, and more to provide alternatives to citizens of the nation choice, the need for increased technical training, and the impact of various changes on the court system.
Former Jamestown City Court Judge Fred Larson said the COVID-19 pandemic has had a direct impact on Chautauqua County’s court system.
“According to the judges, of all the municipal courts in the eight counties in Western New York, the Jamestown Municipal Court’s two judges are the busiest,” He says.
The only virtual aspect of the Jamestown City Court is the occasional use of virtual interpreters, Larson said. He explained that the unified state court system changed dramatically in March 2020.
On March 16, 2020, Larson and other court judges in the state were ordered to leave the courtroom and office. However, by May 2020, judges were allowed to return to work in the office.
When the judge was allowed to return, Larson said the state soon began transitioning to virtual court hearings. However, this transition has only been possible through emergency pandemic orders and has not been permanently changed by state law.
At first, virtual courts were only used for criminal cases.
“In the early days of the pandemic, there were no evictions and no small claims hearings. My supervisor in Buffalo didn’t even allow me to attend Jamestown Housing Court,” Larson said.
After the state’s eviction moratorium ended, Larson said landlord-tenant legal cases were conducted virtually, and Jamestown Housing Court resumed virtually in the summer of 2021. After the initial phase of the pandemic, small claims court cases are also being conducted virtually.
Larson explained that virtual courtrooms have many benefits for everyone involved in court cases.
“Through virtual court, we can arraign defendants, whether criminal defendants are at the jail in Mayville or at the Jamestown Police Department jail at City Hall,” he said. He says. “Not only does this protect everyone in the system from being exposed to the COVID-19 virus, it’s more effective and safer than the normal system.”
Virtual court proceedings in drug and mental health courts are particularly beneficial, according to Larson. On the other hand, he acknowledged that small claims cases can sometimes present difficult challenges if the case requires a large number of witnesses. For complex cases, Larson said he asked the court to sit in person in Jamestown rather than online.
Despite millions of dollars invested in the virtual state court system, the unified state court system did not take the necessary steps to continue virtual court proceedings after an emergency order initiated during the pandemic expired.
“As the emergency pandemic order expires, it turns out that the unified state court system is clearly not heading to the New York State Legislature in spring 2021 to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to allow for some virtual criminal proceedings,” Larson said. “The only parts of this successful experiment during the COVID-19 pandemic are virtual drug courts and virtual mental health courts.”
One advantage of virtual court is that people appearing in court don’t need to take a full day off or drive from all over the county to attend court meetings that may only last for a short time.
“As a treatment court judge, I see huge advantages in virtual drug courts and mental health courts,” Larson said. “Virtual treatment court continues today. This means that our employed treatment court participants no longer need to take time off to appear in court virtually.”
Larson, who retired as a judge in December, said, “Unfortunately” For all other court proceedings, there is no longer an option for virtual court proceedings. He believes that requiring everyone involved in a court case to drive to court for a misdemeanor court proceeding is a waste of money, fuel and time.
From a county taxpayer’s perspective, Larson said virtual courtrooms save taxpayers money and travel time and money for police departments, district attorneys and public defenders.
Because of the success of the virtual court system, Larson believes the state should reintroduce the virtual court option to handle small cases.
“I would like to see senior leadership of the unified state court system convince the state legislature that state law should allow virtual courts, at least in some minor criminal cases,” He says.
The only complaints Larson heard about the virtual court proceedings were some of the defendants’ claims that their public defenders were not engaging in the same level of communication they usually do when they stay face-to-face with court proceedings. Still, Larson doesn’t see this as a disadvantage, as defense attorneys and clients are given ample opportunity to discuss issues privately.
“As long as the rights of defendants are upheld through virtual courts, I’m in favor of saving taxpayers this money,” he said. Larson said.
Rural counties see the advantages of virtual courts more than urban counties because of residents’ proximity to county courts, Larson said. He believes the proximity of residents in cities and counties is one reason the state hasn’t implemented a virtual court system for long.
While he hopes upcoming public hearings in Buffalo and Manhattan will spark change in the state, he said he’s not overly optimistic about the state’s return to a virtual court system.
“My experience is that unless New York State is in serious financial trouble, it’s slow to change anything. The unified state court system is headquartered in Manhattan,” He says. “Their views are very different from Jamestown, New York.”