New York City public defenders file suit to halt in-person court appearances

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Queens County Courthouse

Queens County Courthouse. Photo by David Shankbone / Creative Commmmons

Six public defender groups in New York City filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to halt resumption of in-person court appearances for nonemergency criminal matters in New York City.

The lawsuit alleges the abrupt decision to resume in-person court appearances July 15 is unconstitutional and a violation of laws protecting people with disabilities, according to a press release. The Queens Daily Eagle has coverage.

Clients whose disabilities put them at higher risk if they contract COVID-19 are being endangered, the suit says. Resuming in-person proceedings will perpetuate the virus “and burden the constitutional rights to access the courts and to due process of law,” the lawsuit says.

The July 9 order requiring in-person attendance applies to New York City’s Criminal Court, but not to the criminal branch of the state’s trial-level supreme court. The New York City Criminal Court handles unindicted felonies and lower-level offenses.

Groups of up to 10 cases will be selected for in-person appearances each day in each courthouse in felony waiver parts. Because there are multiple parts in each courthouse, each appearance can involve up to six separate individuals, the suit says.

The plan has been implemented “chaotically,” making it impossible for public defenders to predict which cases will be calendared for appearances, the suit says. As a result, the plan discriminates against people with disabilities who need sufficient notice to seek and receive accommodations, the suit says.

“On the eve of the rushed and unnecessary reopening of courts contemplated by the in-person order, plaintiffs’ clients with these disabilities face the tragic and illegal choice between their fundamental right to participate in their own cases and their health and safety,” the July 14 suit says.

The lawsuit alleges violations of:

• The Americans With Disabilities Act, by following a policy that doesn’t consider a person’s disabilities and doesn’t provide reasonable modifications.

• The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which bars exclusion of people with disabilities from programs receiving federal financial assistance.

• The due process clause of the 14th Amendment, by showing a deliberate indifference to the health and well-being of people to whom it is obligated to show due care, and by arbitrary and excessive use of government power that doesn’t serve a legitimate governmental interest.

The suit was filed by the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Bronx Defenders, New York County Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and Queens Defenders. The defendant is the New York State Office of Court Administration.

Office of Court Administration spokesperson Lucian Chalfen told the Queens Daily Eagle that public defender groups have already agreed to some appearances as the court system gradually reopens.

“The defender organizations had already agreed to, and we have already held, in-person appearances for some of their clients,” Chalfen said. “Now they want the court system to regress offering no solutions, only demands.”

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