Nassau County Court in Mineola can start holding some criminal...

Nassau County Court in Mineola can start holding some criminal trials on Friday after the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread court closures. Credit: Newsday / Bridget Murphy

For four months, the courts have effectively been closed.

What a terrible mistake.

Costco, Target and liquor stores all qualified as “essential” businesses under New York’s coronavirus pandemic shutdown orders, but not the courts. 

The jails didn’t close, but the courts did.

Domestic violence didn’t end, but any real capacity to get an immediate Family Court order of protection or file for divorce did.

People didn’t stop dying, but the ability to probate a will or settle an estate was lost.

Fraud, larceny, and embezzlement have been alive and well, but meaningful access to a court of law to obtain a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction or other court order to protect yourself or your business, not so much.

Children and grandchildren couldn’t visit dying parents and grandparents and, as a practical matter, no court was available to order that they be given access to their loved ones to say goodbye. This abomination may have been the cruelest consequence of all.

Thousands of people, many of them innocent, have languished in jail cells in our region because their cases got adjourned over and over again with no hope of prompt resolution. Prosecutors have worked from home and often were impossible to reach in an effort to resolve pending criminal cases.

Hospitals never closed.

Police departments never closed.

But the courts did.

No one argues that COVID-19 wasn’t novel or frightening or that reasonable precautions against its contraction were ill-advised.

The argument is that courts are essential, have always been essential and will always be so.

What distinguishes civilization from chaos and lawlessness are our laws and their enforcement. When our courts close, we revert to the latter.

The courts have begun to slowly reopen with Zoom and Skype court appearances, etc., but such appearances are woefully inadequate and altogether lack the essential human dynamics and physical presence so essential to the proper administration of justice.

We need to get back to business as usual in the courts now.

The next time a nasty virus comes along, let the courts be the last thing to close, not the first. 

Kevin Kearon is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Garden City. He is a past president of the Nassau Criminal Courts Bar Foundation and a former chair of the Ethics Committee of the Nassau County Bar Association. An earlier version of this piece appeared on kevinkearon.com.