Unions representing court workers and legal aid attorneys are calling on the city to hit the brakes on in-person court proceedings, arguing that they put workers, judges, and defendants at risk of contracting COVID-19.
At a rally and march outside Brooklyn Supreme Court on Monday, members of 1199 SEIU, which represents paralegals and clerical workers, and UAW2325, the union of Legal Aid attorneys and defender services slammed the city for its rush to reopen criminal and housing courts in July, a decision union members accused of being rooted in racism.
“It’s funny, but emphatically not funny, that the day we found out they wanted to reopen housing court for these trials, the mayor was painting a Black Lives Matter mural the next borough over,” said Jared Trujillo, a Legal Aid attorney and UAW member. “If gyms are not open, if restaurants are not open to protect wealthy and white New Yorkers, why are we peddling Black and brown New Yorkers through housing court and through criminal court?”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly claimed closed court systems are responsible for a citywide spike in violent crime, as has Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. Criminal courts are slated to resume grand jury proceedings and other criminal proceedings in person on August 10. Housing court is slated to reopen for in-person proceedings on July 27, a move tenants rights activists have decried.
“We owe it to our communities and we owe it to our police officers to restart our court system as vigorously as possible and as quickly as possible,” de Blasio said during a press briefing on July 16. “So please hear our plea because that’s how we keep our communities safe.”
Since mid-March when the city shut down the criminal court system has conducted 19,000 virtual arraignments, 34,000 additional criminal proceedings and over 600 felony preliminary hearings, the New York Post reported.
A spokesman for the Unified Court System defended their reopening strategy, pointing out that all reopening plans had been vetted by an epidemiologist, defender services had been included on walkthroughs of the court buildings, and that all counties outside of New York City had already resumed in-person appearances.
“Our careful, incremental, and measured resumption of in-person operations in courthouses throughout the state gas been both deliberative and transparent,” said Lucian Chalfen. “What these protesters are asking for is the court system to regress, offering no solutions only demands.”
Union attorneys say they don’t think there is a way to safely reopen the courts before a vaccine is developed, and that the city should focus on honing its virtual proceedings system rather than rush a reopening.
“It just goes completely against CDC guidelines,” Legal Aid attorney Bri Guzman told Brooklyn Paper. “There are a lot of ways we can do this virtually, and the courts are just tired because they have realized that they are inadequate when it comes to virtual proceedings — but that’s not our fault! They need to get their operations in order.”