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LI judges adjusting to digital technology during coronavirus pandemic

Senior court clerk Joseph DePalma during Nassau County

Senior court clerk Joseph DePalma during Nassau County District Court video proceedings on Thursday in Mineola. Credit: David Handschuh

Joy Watson has served Nassau residents from the bench for several years. But she had never played a judge on screen — until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

On Wednesday morning, Watson put on a business suit as she usually would before going to her job at Nassau County District Court.

But instead of heading to the Hempstead courthouse, the jurist simply walked into her home office where a state-issued laptop was arranged with a view of a bookcase in the background.

“When I sat down in front of the screen, I was on the bench,” Watson recalled in an interview Thursday, a day after her first shift manning the District Court case calendar all by Skype videoconference.

She is among Long Island judges who have had to quickly adapt to technological changes to conduct essential proceedings as part of a digital system that has taken the place of appearances at mostly shuttered courthouses during the coronavirus pandemic.

Judges in Nassau use a Skype for Business application, appearing virtually as do all parties in a case, after a court clerk in a Mineola courthouse sends a link to click on, according to Nassau Administrative Judge Norman St. George.

The switch to virtual proceedings also has happened in Suffolk and around the state as part of an effort to decrease courthouse foot traffic amid the public health emergency.

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St. George said in an interview that the state courts system shipped 75 laptops to Nassau judges with Skype already set up, leaving the county’s seven courthouses running with only about 40 to 50 employees appearing in person.

“We thought that it was a revolution in terms of the … criminal justice reform which was just a couple of months ago, not knowing that this would be in a virtual world within three months,” St. George added, joking that “appearing by hologram” might be next.

On a more serious note, St. George acknowledged in-court appearances would be better for protecting defendants’ rights, but “given the public safety and health concerns” that videoconferencing was “the best system available.”

Watson said her virtual day in court included a few volume problems but no major blips, and that making decisions from home “doesn’t change the thought process.”

The judge said she used her own computer to read emailed court documents, rather than setting up a split screen on her state-issued laptop to view the documents there while Skyping.

Nassau District Court Supervising Judge Elizabeth Fox-McDonough said she had a tech on hand to help her learn how to split her screen: her daughter, a college freshman.

“We’re making it work in the safest way and it’s pretty amazing that the courts are up and running,” Fox-McDonough added.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Teresa Corrigan, the supervising judge in Nassau County Court, took the lead on getting virtual proceedings running there before other judges who usually work from the Mineola location joined in.

Matters coming before county court include emergency requests in which jail inmates are seeking early release due to COVID-19. Corrigan said statistics from Nassau’s jail showed 78 people were granted early release by Tuesday, after the consideration of factors that included the time remaining on an inmate’s sentence along with the person’s health, age and criminal history.

She said most county court judges have arranged their Skype setups in front of windows in their homes and their attire also has been a departure from the usual.

“So very funny, most of the judges, when they went home, did not know they would not be allowed back in the courthouse. And many of the judges do not have their robes when they Skype,” Corrigan said.

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