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Decision to open courts during storm draws attorneys’ ire

Even as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency and urged everyone downstate to stay home, the region’s state courts stayed open Thursday morning in blizzard conditions — forcing some people with court dates to drive on near-impassable roads or risk arrest.

Within an hour and a half, the state Office of Court Administration relented and closed almost all courts on Long Island and in New York City.

“It’s outrageous,” said defense attorney George Duncan of Central Islip, who traveled to court Thursday. “What if someone gets hurt coming here [to court] because they didn’t want to get a warrant [issued against them]?”

There was no reason for the courts to be open in such conditions, especially when it was obvious that little would get accomplished, said attorney Harry Tilis of Bohemia. Tilis also braved the roads to get to court, but most judges did not make it to work and neither did many lawyers.

Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration, said the decision on whether to close courthouses is “an art, not a science.” Ultimately, he said, the decisions are heavily influenced by the administrative judges in each county. He acknowledged that people on Long Island and in the city were upset that courts were open at first, but said others would have felt that way if the courts hadn’t opened at all.

“Whatever you do, you’re wrong,” Chalfen said.

The halls of the Central Islip courthouse were sparsely populated Thursday morning, at a time when they’re normally bustling. Some newly arrested defendants were brought to arraignment court from police precincts, but the buses that bring detained defendants from the jails in Yaphank and Riverhead did not roll.

Across the parking lot, the federal courthouse did not open Thursday. In Brooklyn, the federal courthouse closed at noon.

Among the few who made it in to Central Islip was Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini on his third day on the job. Sini, a former federal prosecutor, said he wanted to see Suffolk’s arraignment court in action, so he paid a visit with Chief of Staff Justin Meyers, and Trial Division Chief Tad Scharfenberg.

They sat quietly in the audience while Scharfenberg, a former veteran defense attorney, talked about how that courtroom — which is unlike all other criminal courtrooms in Suffolk — functions. After a while, Sini took a seat at the prosecution table and chatted with the junior assistant district attorneys who were handling arraignments that day.

High-ranking officials from the district attorney’s office rarely visit the arraignment court. Tilis said he was “very impressed” that Sini came to offer support to those there.

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