Courtrooms go virtual to limit spread of coronavirus

Mar 30, 2020

Credit freeimages.com/Jason Morrison

Instead of filing into courtrooms, judges, attorneys, and litigants in some civil and criminal cases are now logging onto Skype.

It's a way to keep legal proceedings moving in the age of coronavirus.

The 7th Judicial District, which covers all the state, county, town, and village courts in Monroe and seven surrounding counties, went virtual on Monday.

That means only a handful of people are in an actual courtroom for legal proceedings. The rest are on a video conference call and only for cases that are deemed essential.

That includes matters such as criminal arraignments or applications for orders of protection.

"Essentially, matters where, if they're not heard by a judge during this time period, someone could be at risk of harm," said Craig Doran, the 7th Judicial District's administrative judge.

Doran says he understands the frustration for others whose cases are on hold because they don't meet these criteria.

"It might be, for example, an issue on visitation with a child," he explained. "Perhaps, they thought they would be able to expand their visitation with their child. Because of what's happening in the community right now, they're not able to do that."

Attorney Jon Getz, who represents clients in both criminal and civil matters, says he understands the need to temporarily limit the types of cases that can be heard, but he'd like to see more flexibility in the court calendars soon, so the system won't be overwhelmed when court rooms do open up again.

"Because the worst thing that could happen in my mind is having a flood gate open," Getz said. "Everybody's going to be teed up, and having the flood gate open without any ability to kind of let some of the water out of the dam, so to speak."

Doran sounded more optimistic. He said the degree to which judges, court personnel, and lawyers have adjusted to these unique challenges, makes him believe they will be able to handle the next transition when things return to normal.

Getz, a partner in the Rochester law firm Vahey Getz, sees an opportunity to expand the use of video conferencing technology for certain legal proceedings after the pandemic.  He said conferences and arguments of motions are already done virtually in federal courts.

"If we can move things along faster and keep costs down for people while doing it,"  he added, "I think that's also a good thing for our profession."

But Getz admits certain nuances are lost when meetings don't take place face to face.

"I had a matter once where I was trying to argue in the 2nd Circuit via video," he recalled, "and there was a time delay. You could see the judges were getting frustrated because as you're trying to answer a question, they're already asking another question."

Residents of the 7th judicial district who have court-related questions can contact their designated county court house.  That information, as well as details about postponements, is available online at ww2.nycourts.gov/courts.7jd/index.shtml