ITHACA, N.Y. –– After months of closed doors, Tompkins will join 30 upstate counties in a phased reopening of the court system starting Monday, May 18.

Counties that have met the Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s established safety benchmarks announced this week have gotten the go-ahead to begin opening.

While remaining open for business during the pandemic, the court system has had limited operations, consolidated court facilities and implemented and expanded virtual court operations.

This first phase of re-opening will not include in-person hearings but rather, will focus on slowly getting judges and support staff back in the office. However, new cases may be filed in these counties electronically as employees return.

“We’re not doing any physical appearances –– judges, clerks and secretaries are coming back,” Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten told the Voice Thursday. “We’re still doing court virtually for the foreseeable future except for extraordinary circumstances.”

According to a memorandum sent out Wednesday by the Administrative Judge for the 6th Judicial Distict, Judge Eugene D. Faughnan, clerks and other back office staff returning to their offices will be divided into teams and rotated on a biweekly basis, and cross-contamination of teams is to be limited as much as possible.

The memo goes on to state that in the event of a court becoming contaminated, back-up locations are available in order for the courts to continue serving the public. For Tompkins County, the backup location is the Ithaca City Court.

Additionally, DA Van Houten said that while town and village judges and clerks are permitted to return to their facilities, they will not be hearing cases –– in line with protocol outlined in Judge Faughnan’s memo that states only “essential court hearings” for the towns and villages are to be held at the Tompkins County courthouse.

Courthouse areas that will be used in this first phase include judges’ chambers, clerks’ offices and back offices. Social distancing and other steps restricting courthouse traffic will be enforced to protect the health and safety of judges and staff, attorneys, litigants and members of the public. Among other safety measures:

  • Non-employee court visitors will be required to undergo COVID-19 screening before entering the courthouse, including having their temperature taken by a court employee.
  • All staff who interact with court visitors must wear gloves and an N95 mask, while all other employees are encouraged to wear gloves and some other type of mask (surgical, etc.)
  • Anyone entering the courthouse will be required to wear a mask, with masks available for those who need one.
  • Courtroom and other areas will be carefully marked to ensure proper physical distancing, and waiting areas will be reconfigured to promote social distancing.
  • Court facilities will be regularly sanitized.
  • Hand sanitizer dispensers will be available throughout the courthouse.
  • Acrylic barriers will be installed in courthouse areas as needed, especially between areas where employees and members of the public interact or between employee work stations.
  • Enforcement of social distancing and crowd control by court officers
  • No more than two individuals not from the same household will be permitted in the elevator.

“I look forward to next week’s return of judges and staff to courthouse facilities in many of our upstate counties –– marking a major first step in our resumption to in-person court operations. I am thankful to Administrative Judges Craig Doran and Anthony Cannataro, who are leading our statewide planning efforts, and to all the judges and staff in these upstate counties, for their hard work in preparation for this milestone,” said New York State Chief Judge Janet DiFiore.

Tompkins and the 30 other counties beginning their re-opening will serve as a template for the return of judges and staff to courthouses in other counties of the State.

“As we enter this first phase of our return to our courthouses, we will move carefully and steadily. We will regularly review our safety and other practices, adapting our protocols and facilities as needed, as we strive to serve the justice needs of New Yorkers while balancing the safety of all those who work in and visit our courthouses,” added New York State Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com