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State To Hold Public Hearings On Court Pandemic Practices

The Commission to Reimagine the Future of NY Courts is holding public hearings in Buffalo and Manhattan in October on the state court system’s pandemic practices.

The public hearings will provide an opportunity for the public to hear testimony concerning the impact of practices and protocols adopted by the state court system during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of technology in state courts, the blending of in-person and virtual practices to provide alternative options for state citizens, the need for increased technology training and the impact various changes had on the court system.

Fred Larson, former city court judge in Jamestown, said the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct impact on the court systems in Chautauqua County.

“Per judge, of all the city courts in the eight counties of Western New York, the two judges in Jamestown City Court were the busiest,” he said.

Larson said the only virtual aspect of Jamestown City Court was the occasional use of a virtual interpreter. He explained that the Unified State Court System drastically changed in March 2020.

On March 16, 2020, Larson and the rest of the court judges in the state were ordered out of their courtrooms and offices. However, by May 2020, judges were allowed to return to the office for work.

When the judges were allowed to return, Larson said the state quickly began to transition to virtual court hearings. However, this transition was only made possible by an emergency pandemic order and was not permanently changed by state law.

At first, the virtual courtroom was used only for criminal cases.

“Early in the pandemic, there were no evictions, there were no small claims hearings. I was not allowed by my supervisor in Buffalo to even do Jamestown Housing Court,” Larson said.

After the eviction moratorium ended in the state, Larson said landlord tenant law cases were conducted virtually, and the Jamestown Housing Court was resumed virtually in the summer of 2021. After the initial phase of the pandemic, small claims court cases were conducted virtually as well.

Larson explained the virtual courtroom had many advantages for everyone involved in court cases.

“With the virtual courtroom, we could arraign a defendant whether the criminal defendant was in the jail in Mayville or in the lock up in the Jamestown police station at City Hall,” he said. “Not only did this protect everybody in the system from coming in contact with the COVID-19 virus, but it was so much more efficient and safer than the normal system.”

According to Larson, the virtual courtroom process for drug and mental health courts were particularly beneficial. On the other hand, he acknowledged that small claims cases sometimes presented a difficult challenge if the case required a significant number of witnesses. For complicated cases, Larson said he required court to be held in-person in Jamestown, rather than online.

Despite investing millions of dollars into a virtual state court system, the Unified State Court System did not take the necessary steps to continue the virtual court room process following the expiration of emergency orders initiated during the pandemic.

“As the emergency pandemic orders expired, it turned out that the Unified State Court System, had apparently not gone to the New York State legislature in the spring of 2021 to have the criminal procedure law amended to allow for some virtual criminal proceedings,” Larson said. “The only part of this successful experiment during the COVID-19 pandemic that lives on is virtual drug court and virtual mental health court.”

One of the advantages of the virtual courtroom was that people attending court were not required to take entire days off from work and drive from all over the county to attend a court session that might only last a short period of time.

“As the treatment court judge, I saw tremendous advantages to virtual drug court and mental health court,” Larson said. “Virtual treatment court does continue today. That means our treatment court participants who are employed, no longer have to take time off of work to make their virtual court appearance.”

Larson, who retired from his position as judge last December, said it is “unfortunate” that for all other court proceedings, there is no longer an option for virtual court procedures. He believes it is a waste of money, fuel and time to require each person involved in a court case to drive to court for misdemeanor court proceedings.

From a county taxpayer’s point of view, Larson said virtual court saved taxpayers money and saved police departments, district attorneys and public defenders travel time and money.

Due to the success of the virtual court system, Larson believes the state should reimplement the virtual court option for minor cases.

“I would like to see leadership from the top of the Unified State Court System to convince the state legislature that in at least some minor criminal matters, virtual court should be allowed by state law,” he said.

The only complaint Larson heard concerning virtual court proceedings was that some defendants claimed their public defenders did not engage in the same level of communication they would normally have if the court proceedings remained in-person. Nevertheless, Larson did not perceive this as a disadvantage, because defense lawyers and clients were provided ample opportunities to discuss matters privately.

“As long as the defendant’s rights were being preserved through the virtual court approach, I was in favor of those savings for the taxpayers,” Larson said.

Larson said rural counties saw the advantage of virtual court more than urban counties, due to residents’ proximity to county courts. He believes the close proximity of residents in urban counties is one of the reasons the state has not implemented a long-term virtual court system.

While he is hopeful that the upcoming public hearings in Buffalo and Manhattan could spark change in the state, he said he is not overly optimistic about the state reimplementing the virtual court system.

“My experience is that unless the state of New York is in serious fiscal trouble, it is slow to change anything. The Unified State Court System is headquartered in Manhattan,” he said. “Their view is very different than Jamestown, New York.”

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