Adapting on the Fly: A View from the Family Court Bench
TWO MILES FROM 80 NEW SCOTLAND AVE., FOUR ALBANY LAW GRADUATES SERVE AS JUDICIAL FIRST RESPONDERS in a court that, even in the best of times, is the legal equivalent of a trauma center: Albany County Family Court.
Albany County’s four Family Court judges—Hon. Richard Rivera ’91, Hon. Susan Kushner ’85, Hon. Sherri J. Brooks-Morton ’03, and Hon. Amy Joyce ’97—have worked around the pandemic to ensure that orders of protection did not fall between the cracks, that abused and neglected children were protected, and that juvenile delinquent cases were addressed.
Sometimes that meant working from their dining room tables, conferring with counsel via Skype for Business while the client was on the telephone.
Sometimes it meant a courtroom appearance, with face coverings and social distancing. Sometimes it meant a combination, with some participants in the courthouse and some on a monitor.
The figure-it-out-as-we-go approach required adaptability and ingenuity.
Judges Brooks-Morton and Joyce just took office in January and had little time to get acclimated before COVID-19 changed everything. Judge Kushner had seven years behind her. Judge Rivera has been on the Family Court bench since 2015 and wears multiple hats—acting Supreme Court justice, supervising judge of the domestic violence and mentoring courts, and presiding judge of the domestic violence and youth parts. All were trained at Albany Law to adapt on the fly.
But of course, none had experience handling Family Court during the shifting and potentially deadly winds of a worldwide pandemic.
“I certainly didn’t take any courses on law during a global shutdown,” Brooks-Morton said. “I’m not sure anything could have prepared us for this.”
Rivera agreed, but said he learned to think on his feet in law school, both in the classroom and through his participation in moot court competition. “We were taught to think outside the box to be a better attorney, and I think that made me a better judge.”
Initially, all county court matters were moved to a central, sanitized location: the Albany County Judicial Center. A few weeks later, facilities were either closed or greatly restricted while the judges worked from home. As of mid-summer, the court was open for in-person appearances, but much of the work was still being done remotely, which was less than ideal.
“When litigants are on the phone, you can’t see body language or expressions and those things certainly help with determining credibility,” Brooks-Morton said.
Rivera has noticed a number of potential trends that may be related to the pandemic, including a spike in domestic violence cases and a drop in juvenile delinquent cases.
Meanwhile, a couple miles south, Professor Jaya Connors runs the Family Violence Litigation Clinic within The Justice Center at Albany Law School. Connors said the clinic remained open and will continue to provide services to those in need, and the need is great: New York State reports that calls to the domestic violence hotline are up by a third and shelter occupancy rates have risen.
“I have heard from domestic violence legal service providers who are also working in the trenches that the pandemic has resulted in an influx of clients; that there are too many cases to handle; that they have had to turn away clients because they do not have sufficient staffing; that batterers are breaking victims’ cell phones,” Connors said. “Victims are more isolated now because they can’t just run to a neighbor’s house or have a neighbor drive them to court because of social distancing and fear of infection.”
Connors said the school and students are stepping up to the challenge of helping clients in a virtual setting. “All of our clinical courses at our Justice Center are filled to capacity for the fall, with law students eager to learn and serve.”