“Jane” is at Dutchess Family Court in Poughkeepsie, waiting to see a judge. Due to the nature of her case, she declines to give her name, but she is willing to share her story: Two days earlier, she and her partner had an altercation, which is why she is now seeking an order of protection. She has been to this same courthouse twice before, years ago, and recalls how different it was then.
“People were all on top of each other,” she says of those waiting to have their cases heard.
Now, Jane is the only petitioner in either of the two waiting rooms, each meant to seat dozens. In fact, she is the first person to see a judge, despite it being nearly lunchtime. All of the emergency cases throughout Dutchess County have been redirected to this one courthouse, yet it remains a ghost town.
Consolidated courts, overworked clerks, rebuffed petitions—this is the new reality for Hudson Valley residents attempting to navigate the local legal system during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some, like Jane, are lucky enough to have their cases heard, but many others are hitting dead ends at every turn.
On March 15, the State of New York Unified Court System took the extraordinary step of postponing all nonessential court functions and consolidating all emergency cases outside of New York City to one courthouse per county. (A full list of the courthouses that remain open can be found attached to the memo announcing the changes.) Dutchess Family Court, for example, is now hearing cases regarding orders of protection, violent crime, neglect, abuse, child protection, and arraignments from lower city, town, and village courts, in addition to such cases from supreme and county court. Visitors to closed courthouses are greeted with locked doors and posters announcing that they will not be penalized for missing their appearance, provided they call a handwritten hotline number. Calls by The River to the number listed on the poster outside of Beacon City Court went unanswered. The poster outside of Newburgh City Court does not even list a number.
With so little information available at the shuttered courts, clerks at the few open ones are trying their best to fill the gaps. At Dutchess Family Court, the phone does not stop ringing. Calls come in from residents across the county, concerned about their cases or those of loved ones. But with the office operating on a skeleton crew, there is only one clerk both to field the calls and address walk-ins. The results are predictable: Confused, concerned callers and visitors speak to an overwhelmed clerk who gives them short shrift, leading to breakdowns in communication. One clerk, who was not permitted to speak on the record, hung up on the same caller three times because, according to the clerk, the caller would not stop shouting. (Peter Palladino, chief clerk at Dutchess Family Court, declined to comment for this article.)
Not just the general public, but lawyers too are hitting roadblocks. With jails and prisons being notoriously overcrowded, unsanitary, and lacking access to adequate health care, lawyers are pushing to have their incarcerated clients released immediately, so as to reduce their potential exposure to COVID-19.
“Many of our incarcerated clients are anxious and concerned for their personal safety,” says Thomas Angell, a public defender in Dutchess County. “We have filed multiple applications on behalf of our incarcerated clients requesting their release. We have also started a working group with the district attorney and probation department to review many of the incarcerated individuals to determine whether we can jointly make a recommendation to the courts for release.”
Despite these efforts, releases have been slow to come. According to monthly reports issued by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, only 1,097 of the 43,881 prisoners held statewide were released between March 1 and April 1.
One public defender at Dutchess Family Court—who was not permitted to speak on the record—arrived to secure a client’s release. The client had accepted a plea deal with the understanding that they would be released in April, pending a hearing with the sentencing judge. With all nonessential hearings postponed indefinitely, the public defender tried to push for the client’s immediate release or, failing that, confirm their scheduled release. The lawyer was shot down on both fronts by a clerk, who simply stated there was nothing that could be done at this time.
While COVID-19 stymies the criminal-justice system, it also threatens to unleash a wave of civil concerns. The New York State Department of Labor reports 33,059 new unemployment claims from the Hudson Valley for the week ending March 28—an increase of 2,773 percent over the same period last year. The State of New York Unified Court System suspended all eviction proceedings and pending orders with its March 15 memo, but record layoffs may nevertheless pit newly unemployed tenants against their landlords.
“Fortunately we have not seen very large numbers of emergency cases so far,” says Marcie Kobak, supervisor of litigation at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, which provides free civil legal services to residents from Westchester to Ulster counties. Nevertheless, Kobak says the agency is ready to help.
“Any Hudson Valley resident with a civil legal issue should call our intake line: (877) 574-8529,” Koback says. “Some of the consolidated courts have told us they can accept filings electronically so we can avoid filing in person, and some courts have told us they are able to do telephone or video appearances.”
For petitioners who are actually able to have their cases heard, like Jane, the experience of going to court is uncanny. Visitors to Dutchess Family Court must pass through security on the ground floor, check in with a clerk on the second floor, then go up to the third floor to have their cases heard in one of a half-dozen courtrooms that are empty, save for essential personnel such as the judge, clerk, and stenographer.
Jane, a registered nurse, mentions that she forgot her work-issued surgical mask at home and says that the court should be issuing masks to all visitors. She was forced to take a day off after the altercation with her partner and felt that the court was especially interested in getting her through the system quickly so that she could go back to work at a local hospital.
“When this thing first started, I wasn’t scared,” she says of COVID-19.
It took a friend contracting the virus for Jane to take the situation more seriously. After the altercation with her partner, she had to weigh the risks: her “toxic” relationship, as she describes it, on the one hand, and the potential of contracting COVID-19 by going to court on the other. She put off pursuing the order of protection for a day, but then resolved to come in for it.
“I took the chance today,” she says. But she acknowledges the necessity. “I needed to come out, I needed to handle the things in my personal life. In reality, we do have to step out of our houses.”
If you or someone you know is at threat of domestic violence, you can get help by calling the New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline at (800) 942-6906.
Arvind Dilawar is an independent journalist. His articles, interviews, and essays on everything from the spacesuits of the future to love in the time of visas have appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, Vice, and elsewhere.