By Chief Clerk of Court John Domurad
While the Northern District of New York has made many changes and accommodations over the past seven months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the greatest challenges has been how to protect the First Amendment right of public access to court proceedings. Prior to the pandemic, all criminal, and many civil, proceedings were held in open courtrooms, with unrestricted public access. Due to the pandemic and in conformity with the CARES Act, most court proceedings are being conducted via telephone conference, video conference, Skype for Business or Microsoft Teams. It is anticipated that these remote proceedings will continue to be held throughout the remainder of this year, and quite possibly into 2021.
In order to provide the public with the opportunity to hear or view a court proceeding, the Court’s IT team established a procedure to request remote access to view or listen to a particular proceeding. This public access has presented its own unique set of challenges. It requires a level of trust with the public that they will not talk during the proceeding, and that they will keep their microphone muted so as not to interrupt a proceeding with any background noise. In the event that a person who has been granted access to listen or view a proceeding becomes disruptive, the Court reserves the right to terminate the call without notice.
If a member of the public would like to hear or view a proceeding, they should email a request to PublicProceedings@nynd.uscourst.gov no later than one hundred and eighty (180) minutes prior to the scheduled start of the proceeding. The person will receive an email with instructions and a password code to listen or view the proceeding.
Until recently, all remote proceedings were being held via Skype for Business. However, due to Microsoft’s announcement that it would be retiring Skype for Business next year, the NDNY will be undergoing a transition from Skype to Microsoft Teams.
This transition will be taking place in late October and early November. In order to continue the practice of conducting remote proceedings and other matters, the NDNY is asking that any person intending to request remote access to a proceeding prepare in advance for this upcoming change in platform. The Microsoft Teams platform offers a free application for devices like iPads/iPhones/Androids and Tablets. It also offers free web connectivity over a browser via Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, or Mozilla Firefox. Please note that Internet Explorer or Safari are not compatible with Microsoft Teams.
As always, the public is welcome to attend court proceedings being held in person, but space is extremely limited due to COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Seating will be on a “first come, first served” basis. In closing, I want you to know that we take very seriously our responsibility to provide an open forum to the public. If you have any issues, concerns or questions about our procedures to provide public access, please feel free to give myself (518-257-1809) or Chief Deputy Dan McAllister a call (315-234-8505). We will be glad to assist.