The state court system is struggling, with considerable success, to return to normalcy and maintain services even without its main command center at Beaver Street, according to Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti (See Profile).
Prudenti said the system’s primary lingering issues from Hurricane Sandy stem from the disruption of services at 25 Beaver St. She said computer systems have been moved and are operational, and staff has been deployed to other facilities throughout the city.
“There was at least four feet of seawater in the [Beaver Street] basement and it corroded the [electrical and telephone] lines,” Prudenti said via cell phone. The Beaver Street trunk line that feeds the administrative offices is down.
“The building is pumped out, but all the lines have to be replaced and repaired, so operationally we will be out of Beaver Street for two to three weeks,” she said. “This has been a very difficult time.”
Yesterday, courts were open in all five boroughs, with the exception of the Midtown Community Court on 54th Street in Manhattan and the Red Hook Community Court in Brooklyn. Housing Court evictions remain on hiatus, and no default judgments are being issued in New York City Civil Court until further notice. According to the Center for Court Innovation, the Red Hook Community Justice Center “sustained severe damage after five feet of water entered the building.”
“The ground floor is basically a disaster area—trash everywhere, furniture displaced, computers ruined,” director Greg Berman said in an online post.
Phone service was spotty, especially in Manhattan because of the Beaver Street shutdown, and buildings that had been without heat for several days were frigid, especially 60 Centre St., which houses Manhattan Supreme Court.
“Everyone is muddling through and it’s really cold,” said Chris Mills, a Manhattan-based solo practitioner. “I think people are going to get through it, but I’m afraid of people getting sick. People are wearing their coats and what not, it looks like wartime London.”
Except for grand juries, jury service was called off yesterday in Manhattan because of the cold, said Deputy County Clerk Pearl Hampton, who supervises jury operations.
Hampton said many jurors were reporting for duty, the impaired transit system notwithstanding, and some left disappointed that they did not get to serve. Hampton, whose office is in 60 Centre, said the staff is committed to restoring the court system.
“They’re intrepid,” she said. “Everybody is freezing, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Manhattan solo practitioner Laurence Reinleib said the courthouse at 60 Centre is cold, but that did not seem to keep court staff or attorneys from their jobs.
“Actually, it probably makes people move faster,” he said.
111 Centre St., which houses civil and criminal parts, was also mostly without heat, though court lieutenant James Schmachtenberg said some rooms did have heat.
Daniel Gotlin, a criminal defense attorney, said as he was leaving 111 Centre that “everything’s being adjourned. Nothing substantive is being accomplished.”
On the other hand, Brian Haberly, a partner at Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, said the court was doing a good job rescheduling appearances in light of the circumstances.
“They’re doing the best they can,” he said.
100 Centre St., where most criminal parts are based, was more comfortable, thanks to a working heating system. But the backlog is already starting to cause issues.
Steven Golden, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society, said that defendants who could have been released from jail at court appearances scheduled last week have had to wait in jail. Golden estimated there were about 150 such defendants, but said that, aside from the backlog, the Criminal Court seemed to be back to “business as usual” and that newly arrested defendants should not face any delays.
Solo practitioner Victor Molina, who was waiting for his client to arrive from jail to be indicted, said that getting the court up and running seemed to be “a slow process.” He said that transporting prisoners to court houses was a major cause of delay.
Molina also said that an appearance that had been scheduled earlier in the day had been adjourned to January, and that he had been told that needed case files could not be accessed because a computer was down.
Solo practitioner Brad Mazarin, who was awaiting a Sex Offender Registration Act hearing, said he believed the court was “going back to normal, but it’s going to take a long time.” He said he expected his hearing to be adjourned.
Prudenti said “people have been making extraordinary efforts to come to work. They have put the justice system and the people we serve first and their own personal situation secondary. I have never felt so much pride in our personnel.”
Outside New York City
On Long Island, the courts are “functioning reasonably well in spite of all the difficulties and obstacles,” said Administrative Judge Anthony Marano of Nassau County (See Profile).
Marano said the courts at Long Beach remained closed yesterday, but operations were temporarily shifted to Hempstead. Other Nassau County courts were open.
Justice Alan Scheinkman (See Profile), administrative judge for the Ninth Judicial District in the lower Hudson Valley, said all courts there were up and operating during a regular-hour schedule beginning yesterday. He said the largest disruptions in his district occurred in Putnam County, where courts were closed all last week because they did not have electricity.
Courts in other counties in the district were closed last week, mainly on Oct. 30 and 31, because of power and computer outages. The district encompasses Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Dutchess and Westchester counties.
Scheinkman said it does not appear that any court facility sustained structural damage from Sandy, unlike the dual tropical storms Irene and Lee, which inundated parts of the Ninth Judicial District in 2011 and forced the abandonment of the Orange County Government Center in Goshen due to flooding.
Scheinkman said prospective jurors were being called in all courts throughout the district for the first time since Sandy hit.
He said he has cautioned judges to be particularly lenient and to not penalize litigants, attorneys or potential jurors who have not appeared because of the storm.
“I have asked the judges to be very mindful of what’s happened,” Scheinkman said. “They are not taking defaults or penalizing people for not being able to come to court.”
Prudenti said she did not foresee any Election Day-related issues today.
“We have on-duty judges in each of the districts,” she said. “In many districts, judges are sitting not only in the courthouse but at the Board of Elections. We have been in touch with each of our administrative judges and each has judges to handle election matters.”
Prudenti said judges and non-judicial employees will most likely experience a more hectic pace than usual between Thanksgiving and Christmas as officials strive to make up lost ground and return the court system to full operations. She said it is too early to know what effect the storm will have on the backlog.
“I have just seen tremendous esprit de corps,” Prudenti said. “We are all, judges and non-judicial staff, going to make a tireless effort to get done what we have to get done. I think this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas we will be working harder than ever.”
Prudenti is mainly working from her chambers in Riverhead, Long Island, and Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s (See Profile) chambers in midtown Manhattan.
She said both she and the chief judge will be touring court facilities this week to personally express their thanks to employees who kept the system running.
In a memo to judicial and non-judicial staff yesterday, Lippman and Prudenti noted that Brooklyn Housing Court Judge Marcia Sikowitz (See Profile) lost her 23-year-old son to the storm. Jacob Vogelman was attempting to help a distressed friend on Oct. 29 when they were hit by a falling tree.
“Our hearts go out to all of those suffering and dealing with unthinkable loss at this difficult time,” Lippman and Prudenti said in the memo. “Relief for these members of our court family is a matter of highest priority for all of us, and we are seeking assistance at both the local and national levels. With the strength and dedication of the individuals who make up our court system, we will continue to persevere and overcome any challenges that may lie ahead.”
Bankruptcy Court Problems
The federal court for the Southern District of New York was open yesterday, though prospective new jurors were told not to come in until tomorrow. The court is closed today for Election Day.
Southern District spokeswoman Stephanie Cirkovich said jurors who had been picked earlier were asked to report as their trials or deliberations resumed yesterday.
“I guess the first question that everyone had is, ‘How are you doing?’” Cirkovich said. “I think the concern was for people’s personal welfare first. Other than that, it was business as usual.”
The Southern District Bankruptcy Court remained shut out of its headquarters at One Bowling Green in lower Manhattan. Bankruptcy Court Clerk Vito Genna said power has been restored to that building, but there was no steam for heat. He said it was likely that it would be at least another week before One Bowling Green could be used as Bankruptcy Court headquarters.
In the meantime, he said, court personnel have been dispersed to space in offices that do have heat, electricity and phones. Some Bankruptcy Court employees have temporarily relocated to the Southern District Courthouse in Manhattan, to the Southern District bankruptcy courthouse in White Plains or to the Eastern District Bankruptcy Court in Brooklyn.
Southern District Bankruptcy Court judges Martin Glenn (See Profile) and Sean Lane will hold court in White Plains later this week. Lane has scheduled a hearing in the American Airlines bankruptcy case on Nov. 8; while Glenn has a hearing in the GMAC mortgage matter, also Nov. 8.
Southern District Bankruptcy Judges Shelley Chapman and Stuart Bernstein (See Profile) have moved hearings scheduled in Manhattan to Brooklyn Bankruptcy Court later this week, Genna said.
The court would normally have one judge in Poughkeepsie, one in White Plains and eight at One Bowling Green in Manhattan.
Other judges are working at home and issuing decisions and orders, according to Genna.
One employee has been left behind in the lobby of the otherwise unoccupied building at One Bowling Green to accept court papers from litigants, court officials said.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Financial Services yesterday announced a 30-day moratorium on cancellations for certain personal line insurance policies in 10 counties—New York, Bronx, Kings, Queens, Richmond, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland and Orange.