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Court activity slows across state to limit spread of COVID-19

CANTON — During a typical day at the St. Lawrence County Courthouse, 48 Court St., a steady murmur of attorney-client meetings and hallway conversations underscores the louder shuffling of people between departments and the regimented legal scripts heard in judges’ chambers and courtrooms.
The building itself seems to take a breath every lunch hour.
But the hallways and courtrooms have become unusually quiet over the past week, with offices sending staff to work from home and most proceedings being postponed until further notice, as directed by the New York State Unified Court System due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19.
The district attorney’s office has sent most of its staff to work from home, DA Gary M. Pasqua said, leaving about one-third of staff and attorneys continuing to do some work from their courthouse offices as of last week.
“While it certainly isn’t ideal, it is necessary at this point,” Mr. Pasqua said.
The state UCS issued a memorandum March 13, directing civil and criminal jury trials be postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic, unless opening statements have already started in a civil trial or the jury has already been sworn in for a criminal trial.

Under the criminal jury trial exception, one St. Lawrence County trial was allowed to continue over the past two weeks, though members of the public were turned away from sitting in the gallery.
The double attempted murder trial of Timothy A. Bethel concluded Friday with Mr. Bethel’s acquittal on all counts, further quieting the courthouse.
The UCS has launched a coronavirus hotline for anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and visited any UCS courthouse or facility in the two weeks prior to testing positive. People meeting those criteria are asked to notify the court system’s hotline at 833-503-0447.
As of Friday, no one in St. Lawrence County has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Two judges, one in Kings County and one in Queens County, an attorney and legal intern from Westchester County, and an attorney in Nassau County and inmate at Nassau County jail have all tested positive.
“Our goal is to ensure access to justice, and at the same time, protect the public and our judges and staff by containing the virus,” UCS Chief Judge Janet M. DiFiore said Friday. “The steps we have taken to carry out this dual responsibility are in line with the latest information and recommendations issued by our public health officials, and are designed to contain the spread of the virus.”
Following Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s orders to limit public gatherings, all “nonessential functions of the courts” have been postponed, a precaution that took effect Monday, and will last until further notice, according to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks.
Pending civil and criminal trials will continue to conclusion, as will certain court proceedings, including arraignments and proceedings related to issues of child protection, juvenile delinquency, family offenses, support orders, Mental Hygiene Law, orders of protection and gaurdianships.
In some New York City Courts, arraignments have started to be conducted by video. In St. Lawrence County, arraignments will continue to be completed in person.
“I know that this is a time of anxiety and disruption for all of us, in our personal and professional lives, but it’s important that we remain positive and that we focus on what we can do to keep our families safe; what we can do to support each other in our communities, and what we can do to prepare for the better days that lie ahead,” Judge DiFiore said.
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