Nearly one year ago, the Covid-19 pandemic began disrupting virtually every aspect of life as we know it. Such was the case for courts across New York State, including those in Ulster County, which were shut down last March and for several months thereafter and have had to resort to creative means to restore some of its functions ever since.
Ulster County District Attorney David Clegg took office in January 2020, a little over two months before in-person court was shut down and both trials and grand just proceedings we put on hold.
“The shut down due to Covid was a drastic change, as I’m sure it was to most everyone,” said Clegg. “The difficulty in our world is that crime continued to happen, and by some measures increased, during the time of the shutdown. That has created a backlog of cases.”
Grand jury trials have been allowed to resume at the county level since last fall, though the sessions have been reduced from 17 hours to 3 1/2 hours per week. Clegg said that due to a hiring freeze at the onset of the pandemic by Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, his office was unable to fill vacancies until recently.
“We did not have a grand jury until September, which severely limited our ability to indict serious felony cases,” Clegg said. “We were understaffed for almost all of the 2020. The combination of an increased caseload, an increased workload from the new discovery law, and limitations on court access have all made life difficult for the A.D.A.s [assistant district attorneys]. Every person in my office is working above and beyond the call of duty at this point. And the inability to conduct jury trials now or in the near future has further increased the backlog.”
Clegg noted that the caseload for each A.D.A. had doubled between December 2019 and December 2020, with one assistant district attorney overseeing over 150 cases. The standard felony caseload for an A.D.A. is between 30 and 40 cases, Clegg said.
Criminal jury trials have yet to restart in Ulster, and Ulster County Commissioner of Jurors Paul O’Neill said barring a shift in how technology is used, they may not be able to start again until the pandemic is under control.
“Jury trials, in-person jury trials, that’s the gold standard, no question about it,” he said. “And that’s been on pause. But we’re hoping to continue those again as soon as it’s safe to do so. That’s always the goal regarding what the court has been doing. And technology has helped us deal with the pandemic in ways that just certainly were beyond the realm of possibility even 10 years ago.”
Technology has allowed for remote conferencing, settlement conferences and non-jury trials to move forward, and municipal justices were recently given laptops by the state to allow for many tasks, including arraignments to be done from home rather than in the courtroom.
“One of the areas my office has worked extremely hard is to improve our use of technology,” said Clegg. “We have implemented a prosecutors’ case management system which allows us to digitize our case files and streamlines discovery responses. We are also using that system to start data collection in areas that were never monitored before.”
Before the second wave of the virus hit late last year, local courts were getting creative even without the use of technology. On Tuesday, November 10, 2020, Saugerties residents Joseph Barton and Paula Gloria Barton appeared outdoors before Ulster Town Justice Marsha Weiss because they, and roughly 30 supporters, refused to wear masks. The Bartons were arrested and charged with trespassing on Wednesday, October 21 after entering Mother Earth in Kings Mall without masks and refusing to leave. Last December, Ulster Town Supervisor James E. Quigley, III said it was the third time the Bartons had been asked to wear a mask in Mother Earth or leave.
“They had court in the parking lot at the picnic table,” Quigley said. “I’ve got to say, my judges are accommodating. They’ve been working with people.”
Lucian Chalfen, director of public information for the New York State Unified Court System, said that some of the lessons learned about how to operate courts during the pandemic may prove useful in the future as well.
“The coronavirus pandemic has required the courts to adapt their operations,” he said. “It is likely that some of those adaptations streamlined operations, yielded savings, or enhanced court users’ experiences compared with how business was done prior to the pandemic. It seems reasonable to expect that judges and administrators will study these changes and decide whether to adopt them permanently.”
Chalfen said municipal courts have been guided through the pandemic by administrative orders tailored in part based upon Cuomo’s executive orders.
“The town and village courts were encouraged to get protective items including masks, shields, cleaning supplies and sanitizers, and were reimbursed for those things,” said Chalfen. “The courts were trained and given access to equipment to begin virtual proceedings. Depending on the Covid-19 conditions, the administrative orders modified and adjusted to either reduce or increase in person court proceedings again…The local courts have been directed to limit in-person court matters and mandate that all the necessary protocols are in place to protect the public, judges and court employees. Those things include the mandate that masks be worn, social distancing, spacing, the use of sanitizers, cleaning and often times temperature-taking.”
For the time being, the court system from villages and towns to cities and counties will adapt to ebbs and flows in the spread of Covid-19.
“The judges and court staff of the town and village courts throughout the state have responded to the changing needs and requirements of the pandemic,” Chalfen said. “Through the Unified Court System’s Division of Technology, the town and village courts have been able to access a system to send text messages to litigants to notify them when they can safely enter the courtroom for an appearance, which will help the courts stagger appearances for the safety of all. Courts have implemented creative solutions to ensure that court users remain as safe as possible.”
O’Neill said that with vaccinations on the rise, the courts, like everyone affected by Covid-19, have to stay strong.
“Resilience is the word of the day for this pandemic,” he said. “Some things have changed for the better with how we operate. Some things have been challenges, no question about it. But hopefully we’re getting to the end.”