04:27, March 17 175 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-17 04:27:04
Courts across the US halt as New York’s soldier on

At the 100 Centre Street courthouse in downtown Manhattan, a towering Art Deco structure that routinely plays host to high-profile trials such as Harvey Weinstein’s rape case, the wheels of justice slowed to a crawl Monday as the coronavirus crisis hit America’s legal system.

The New York state court system halted all nonessential proceedings Monday due to the virus outbreak Arraignments and ongoing trials, however, were among the essential functions meant to continue, officials said.

This New York court slowdown comes amid similar actions by judicial officials across the US.

Various local and federal court systems are reportedly putting proceedings on hold. The US supreme court postponed oral arguments for the 23-25 March and 30March-1 April sessions; officials there will “examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances”. While its regularly scheduled conference will take place on Friday, 20 March, some justices can attend via telephone, the court said.

America’s highest legal body has been here before. The supreme court put off arguments in October 1918, due to the Spanish flu outbreak, as well as in August 1793 and August 1798, because of yellow fever outbreaks.

But even those cases still going on will still be impacted. The Manhattan trial of Eric Braverman, a doctor accused of sexually abusing his patient, shows that continuing with essential court functions will probably pose a challenge even when participants want to soldier on.

Braverman’s lawyer, Donald Vogelman, called the court’s clerk this morning, saying that he was tired. When Vogelman arrived at the courthouse for Braverman’s ongoing trial, he took his temperature. It was 99F (37.2C).

Vogelman called into the courtroom via speakerphone and assured Justice Ruth Pickholz: “I’m capable of continuing, yes.”

Pickholz summoned the jury. She explained that Vogelman was not present because he didn’t feel well, but “feels well enough to represent his client by speaker phone”.

“This is unprecedented, what we’re talking about,” she said, directing Vogelman to call his witness.

Vogelman, speaking via speakerphone from several floors up, did so, but his voice had trouble being heard.

“Can you hear me, judge?” he said.

“I can hear you,” she said.

Pickholz sent jurors out of the room, so everyone could discuss how to proceed. Vogelman remained on the line.

“This is going to get really crazy, doing summations and charges through the cloud,” one court officer was overheard remarking to his colleague. “This all sounds made up. This whole day is bizarre.”

Vogelman could then be heard coughing into the speakerphone.

“Your honor,” he said. “Listen, I’ve been coughing …”

“We’re going to end this, bring the jury in,” she said.

“I just can’t do it,” Vogelman also said, adding shortly thereafter: “And I really think I should go home.”

“Yes, you should,” Pickholz said. “Leave the building, now.”

Pickholz declared a mistrial.

The 16th-floor attorney conference room where Vogelman called in from will now be closed and deep cleaned, officials said.

This shift in court operations underscores how local and state officials in the US are doggedly trying to thwart COVID-19’s rapid spread.

The Legal Aid Society supported the closure of housing and civil courthouses, and lauded the pause on evictions and eviction proceedings.

Thousands of New Yorkers enter housing court and other civil courts on a daily basis, and today’s decision to stop proceedings except in emergency cases will help thwart the spread of Covid-19, especially to those who are in high-risk groups such as the elderly or immunocompromised,” the organization, which provides legal assistance to those who can’t afford private lawyers, said in a statement.

“We are also relieved that eviction proceedings and evictions statewide are stayed since evicting a single family and forcing them onto the street or into the shelter system – which is already overburdened and a potential hotbed of contagion – during this unprecedented public health emergency would be inhumane and cruel.”

In the nearby southern district of New York, the highest profile federal court, a juror feeling sick participated in deliberations through video, the New York Daily News

Some courtgoers have taken extreme steps to ensure their protection.

Ex-Fugees band member Pras Michel sported a full-body Tyvek protective suit to Manhattan family court Monday, where he had an appearance over child support, according to the New York Post.

“You see how I’m dressed, right? I just want to make sure I’m not exposed and I don’t expose anyone,” Michel reportedly said outside of court.

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