As state courts began to shake off the pummeling of Hurricane Sandy and reopen yesterday, lawyers reacted with patience, determination and confusion.
Defendants with Criminal Court appearances lined up outside the courthouse were given administrative adjournment slips.
Inside, attorneys were on their cell phones or in courtrooms trying to determine whether their cases would be proceeding.
“This is crazy, but you can’t be upset because it’s not normal,” said Leonard Ressler, a Kew Gardens solo practitioner who had just been told by court staff to wait to see if a scheduled appearance for a client’s felony case would occur.
Meanwhile, other courts marked time waiting for utilities to restore power and Internet connections. For example, state courts in Manhattan were closed except for arraignments as were courts in hard-hit communities like Red Hook and Long Beach.
In the federal courts, Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska (See Profile) issued an order extending deadlines in criminal cases, blaming the “extraordinary damage and disruption” caused by the storm and the continued “inaccessibility” of the district’s courthouse in Manhattan.
The inconvenience caused by the storm reverberated through the legal community.
The New York City Law Department has temporarily relocated its office and essential staff from its Church Street headquarters in lower Manhattan to 350 Jay Street in Brooklyn, at the Renaissance Plaza. Service of papers will be accepted at the Jay Street location, in the upstairs lobby area, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 718-222-2226.
The Appellate Division, First Department, will remain closed until power is restored to its Manhattan building. In the meantime, it will have a satellite office in the Bronx Supreme Court building at 851 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York, Room 613 for emergency applications and the filing of motions for re-argument and leave to appeal only. Its telephone number there is 718-618-1263. All cases scheduled through Nov. 1 will be rescheduled.
The New York State Bar Association has taken the unusual step of postponing until Nov. 17 the House of Delegates meeting that was to have taken place Nov. 3 in Albany “because of the obvious travel problems for our downstate members,” spokeswoman Lise Bang-Jensen said.
Among the courts that reopened, David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Unified Court System, said those in Westchester and Suffolk counties were functioning well. Those in Nassau County, with computer and phone outages, were not “able to perform at a tremendous level.”
“We are doing our best to keep the doors open where possible,” he said.
Justice Jeremy Weinstein (See Profile), administrative judge of the Queens Supreme Court’s civil term, said the first day back after two days “went very smoothy. We understood all the complications. Cases were adjourned routinely. Nobody defaulted for failure to bring motions and papers required today.”
Given the state of public transportation, Weinstein said that the courts “have to be sympathetic to the fact that people can’t get to you.”
Leonard Ressler had had court dates for two cases on Monday and two cases on Tuesday. One of the clients called him daily, “I keep telling her ‘look, I don’t know. Stay tuned.’”
Ressler, a Great Neck resident, was not ruffled by the day’s twists and turns. As he waited, he planned to finally check the Internet at his nearby office. After losing power for 17 hours at his home, he still had no Internet service there.
But “New Yorkers always persevere,” he said.
Just down the hall from Ressler, inside the courtroom of Acting Queens Supreme Court Justice Salvatore Modica (See Profile), Randall Unger of Bayside was waiting to find out the status of a case for a client accused of burglary, arson and assault.
A jury has been picked on Friday and openings were set for Monday—and “then the tsunami came” said Unger.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. This is the strangest thing,” he said, noting for example that when a snowstorm closed courts for a day, the proceedings would just be put over to the next day. “With multiple days, it’s hard to say,” he said. While he talked, one juror assigned to Unger’s case entered the courtroom, the second to inquire.
“Jury on?” she asked the court officer, who told her the case would not proceed.
At the Queens District Attorney’s Office, most assistant district attorneys were able to get into work, even if it meant some walking or carpooling.
Jim Quinn, chief of the office’s trial division, said “technically” all Supreme Court parts were open.
Nevertheless, jurors were not being called in nor were police producing officers to testify. Prisoners for Criminal Court cases were not being produced, but were being produced for Supreme Court cases, he said. Moreover, Quinn said as of yesterday morning, just three court reporters were able to make it to work.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said the situation reminded him of the blackout from the mid-70s, when he was the supervising judge of the Brooklyn Criminal Court. “It just takes time to get all the pieces of the criminal justice system back together,” he said.
By around midday, there were 84 individuals waiting for arraignment, less than the 150-200 of a typical day. About 15 were accused of looting in the storm’s aftermath—conduct for which the office would have “zero tolerance,” said Brown.
On Tuesday, Brown visited the community of Breezy Point, where more than 100 homes burned as firefighters slogged through flood waters to rescue families.
“It reminded me of the devastation at Hiroshima,” he said.
@|Andrew Keshner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Caher and Brendan Pierson contributed to this story.