County judge doesn’t expect Courthouse to reopen for court until at least August
ALBION – The Orleans County Courthouse has been largely closed to the public since mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Most court functions have been put off until June. But the court system continues to use Skype for arraignments, to issue orders of protection and to suspend driver’s licenses.
County Court Judge Sanford Church said he doesn’t expect the court system to resemble normal until at least August.
“Like everything else in the world it’s a big maybe for what will happen in the future,” he said on a Zoom videoconferencing call Saturday with about 50 other local elected and appointed officials. “It isn’t a complete shutdown but it’s a near shutdown.”
Judge Church has been doing arraignments from his home, using the Skype video technology. Representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender or retained counsel are also using Skype for those arraignments, or if the judge issues an order of protection or to suspend a driver’s license.
Church handles those duties from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. During the off-hours, town justices will preside in the cases through a new Centralized Arraignment Program. With the CAP, defendants are arraigned in the county jail at 8:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. every day. Kendall Town Justice Deborah Kluth and Clarendon Town Justice Tom DiFante are serving as the interim judges in the CAP until the end of May.
Church said the county court system is limited to “essential proceedings” right now.
The criminal justice system has been limited for nearly two months because the grand jury is not allowed to convene. The grand jury is needed to serve up a felony indictment. The grand jury meets in a room at the Public Safety Building. There are typically 16 to 23 people for the grand jury, plus the DA’s Office and witnesses. That is too many people right now to have in a room.
District Attorney Joe Cardone said the caseload is starting to mount up due to the grand jury being sidelined.
“Frankly the arrests are building,” Cardone said during Saturday’s conference call. “With no grand jury since March it’s really going to be a crunch on us. We’re afraid of a floodgate-type situation when we open back up.”
Judge Church also said the court isn’t handling child custody or child support cases right now. In some cases, people on unemployment with reduced income have reached out to the court to authorize paying less in child support.
The court also isn’t processing pistol permits, and isn’t doing motions or pleas in cases. (The judge said the Office of Court Administration has authorized judges to help resolve some cases, by working through the attorneys. But that doesn’t include any new proceedings, which are on hold.)
When people are ticketed for vehicle and traffic offenses, they aren’t getting return dates for court “because we don’t know when it will reopen,” Church said.
Orleans County is one of eight counties in the 8th Judicial District (click here for more information). Orleans, however, is included in the Finger Lakes region for consideration of the state’s reopening of businesses and other recreational activities. Five of the eight counties in the 8th Judicial District are part of the WNY district for the state’s reopening plan.
Those five counties are behind the Finger Lakes in a metrix to determine when the regions can begin reopening. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today the Finger Lakes region has met all seven of the criteria for phase 1 of the reopening while WNY has met five of the seven.
Judge Church said the timeline for when the courts will reopen and in what phases is uncertain.
“Going forward, just like everything else, who knows?” he said. “We’re optimistic in August things might start opening up, but we don’t know.”