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Courts Try To Resume In-Person Proceedings As Safely As Possible

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Along with so much of American life, the pandemic stopped ordinary court proceedings. Now states and cities have resumed operations, hearing new cases plus the backlog of old ones. Beth Fertig of our member station WNYC watched a New York City court trying to safely do business.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Brooklyn's busy housing court had just started hearing cases again when the federal government announced a moratorium on evictions. Judges were back in courtrooms.

HEELA CAPELL: This is the quietest trial I've ever had.

FERTIG: Judge Heela Capell took a break from her first trial since March. Because Brooklyn's notoriously cramped housing court wasn't fit to reopen in a pandemic, trials were moved to the criminal court building a few blocks away with much bigger courtrooms and safety features. Desks were being wiped while we talked.

CAPELL: The bench, witness stand and court attorney area and other desks in the courtroom all have plexiglass around them and are more than six feet apart from each other.

FERTIG: Like everyone else here, Capell was wearing a mask. There was just one trial that day. One sister wanted to evict the other from a building they used to own together. Attorney Domenick Napoletano raised concerns with Capell that his client couldn't sit next to him.

DOMENICK NAPOLETANO: My client was not sitting with me at council table. But she can't be sitting here with me at the council table from what I understand.

FERTIG: The judge had suggestions.

CAPELL: You could write on a notepad and exchange that. Another thing that we can do is I can permit texting.

FERTIG: The trial proceeded with lots of note taking. Despite safety precautions in the housing and criminal courts, there isn't a lot of business being conducted in-person each day. Grand juries are hearing evidence and making indictments. And some felony cases are being called in for procedural hearings. But there are still no jury trials. Arraignments are still virtual and so are most other cases. But that requires having the right technology.

ALEX DRIMAL: Access to a computer, access to a smartphone - many of my clients don't have regular access to the Internet.

FERTIG: Brooklyn legal services lawyer Alex Drimal says that's an obstacle to virtual trials in a lot of courts even though, she says, her clients need this option. They're mostly people of color who are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and afraid to take mass transit. Attorneys also worry about the potential for witness coaching in online trials when you can't see if anyone else may be present. Housing court trials are expected to slow down now that the CDC has made it much harder to evict tenants affected by the coronavirus.

But with other cases ramping up, Paula Hannaford-Agor of the National Center for State Courts says virtual hearings are the only way for courts to move forward in a pandemic. She says some courts are letting those without the right technology use computers at libraries and community centers to bridge the digital divide. In New York City, public defenders and court officers have complained about poor ventilation in the courts and insufficient protections. But the sisters who sat on opposing sides for their trial in Brooklyn, Lucy Wade and Evelyn Collier, agreed they felt safe.

LUCY WADE: I thought, when I walked in, it was going to be a roomful of people. Then I would have been concerned.

EVELYN COLLIER: You didn't have to worry about 25 other people standing by the door waiting to get in.

FERTIG: The New York court system knows these in-person proceedings can only happen safely if it continues to limit the number of people in each building. But attorneys are hoping to steer as many as they can to virtual hearings.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.