A Brooklyn courthouse was still packed as coronavirus spread. Judges, their staffs and lawyers are paying the price.

There was no social distancing as lawyers waited the session to begin March 12 before Judge Johnny Lee Baynes in Brooklyn Supreme Court.
There was no social distancing as lawyers waited the session to begin March 12 before Judge Johnny Lee Baynes in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

Dozens of lawyers, court officers and clerks crowded onto the wooden benches in Judge Johnny Lee Baynes’ courtroom on March 12 as they waited for the judge to hear cases at his calendar call, the busiest day of his week.
It was business as usual — which unnerved some lawyers. Before court began, they chatted among themselves about the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the city.
When one lawyer complained that social distancing guidelines weren’t being followed in the jam-packed Brooklyn Supreme Court courtroom, Baynes fired back.
“If you don’t like it, you can leave,” the lawyer recalled Baynes telling her.

Judge Johnny L. Baynes in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2004.
Judge Johnny L. Baynes in front of Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2004. (Desiree Navarro/for New York Daily News)
The courtroom session continued, and Baynes — well-liked and highly regarded by courthouse regulars — handled the day’s business with his usual lively vigor.
It was his last appearance on the bench. Two weeks later, the judge was dead of complications related to coronavirus.
Other judges in the always-bustling courthouse are also sickened by the disease.
Brooklyn Supreme Civil Court’s administrative judge, Lawrence Knipel, is hospitalized with the virus.
Two more judges — Wayne Saitta and Noach Dear — have also been diagnosed. Rumors even circulated of Dear’s death.
Lawyers who regularly practice in the building — and who are still reeling from Baynes’ sudden death — were not surprised the courthouse is a locus for the rapidly spreading and sometimes deadly virus.
“That’s a courthouse that’s so densely filled all the time,” said attorney Dmirtriy Shakhnevich. “If I was a betting man, Brooklyn [Supreme Court Civil] is by far the busiest courthouse in the city — and that includes criminal courts as well.”

Social distancing is an idea alien to Brooklyn Supreme Court’s civil courthouse, always crowded with lawyers and judges handling slip-and-fall cases, motor vehicle crashes, complaints filed against city government, and other kinds of civil lawsuits.

Photos and video taken in Baynes’ courtroom on his last day — during the last week the court operated normally — show dozens of lawyers packed together in the gallery as the healthy-appearing judge presided.

“There has to be 400 people, just attorneys, in that courthouse any given day," said the lawyer who argued with Baynes. "And then jurors, court officers, clerks and judges.

“I’ve practiced in every courthouse in the city," continued the attorney, who asked for anonymity. "When I first went to Brooklyn it was very overwhelming. It was completely different ...

"Most of the cases at the court are about minor car accidents. To lose a life over something stupid —,” the lawyer said, her voice trailing off.

On March 16, new trials and hearings were suspended, as were most in-person appearances at the Brooklyn courthouse. Judges and their staffs were still required to show up in court, according to the memo announcing the suspension.

When an angry clerk union rep confronted Administrative Judge Knipel about closing the building, the judge told him the order to stay open came from the higher ups.

"Judge Silver wants us to keep the courts open,” the union head says Knipel told him, referring to Deputy Chief Administrative Judge of New York City George Silver.

Only on Monday did the state fully order that judges are no longer required to appear in person at their courthouses, making the court system fully virtual, an Office of Court Administration spokesman said. A “very small number" of clerks and court officers are staying on in courthouses to process critical paperwork and provide security, the OCA says.

But the administrative directive was too late and did not go far enough, lawyers said.

One lawyer who has tested positive for coronavirus said he visited the Brooklyn civil courthouse just days before it closed to everything but essential service.

A Brooklyn court clerk found out she had been in the same room as the lawyer. When she told her doctor, she was told to quarantine for 14 days. She also ended up testing positive.

“There is no six feet of distance [at the courthouse]. There is no such thing as social distance there,” the clerk told the Daily News. “I think that in general terms the court is more concerned with getting the work done than anything else.”

A dozen people who passed through Brooklyn Supreme Court Civil have confirmed positive coronavirus tests, including the judges, according to the Office of Court Administration. Most of those people visited the court on or after March 12.

No courthouse in New York State has had as many judges fall ill with coronavirus as Brooklyn Supreme Court Civil, said a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration. Other judges around the state have fallen sick with coronavirus, though Baynes is the only judge to have died of the infection so far.

“The smart approach would have been to shut all things down earlier,” said Shakhnevich. “It was too slow, but on the other hand the court system is not designed to implement a distance approach. You can’t just overnight say, ‘Alright guys, you’re not appearing in person.’"

A Brooklyn judge who counted Baynes among her friends said that it’s a busy courthouse, but so are many others across the state.

“We have a very high volume," said Judge Lisa Ottley. "But I’m sure if you speak to other judges in other counties they’ll say they have a high volume.”

Ottley was still shocked by the toll the virus has taken on her robed Brooklyn colleagues, including her old friend Johnny Lee Baynes.

“I don’t know what to say," she reflected. "Honestly, I don’t know what to say.”

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