By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall: The U.S. Supreme Court’s building will be closed to the public. Under the Sixth Amendment, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.” These are unprecedented times for the practice of law.
People in jail, accused of a crime, with COVID-19, despite respiratory issues such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension and being elderly, the court system is all but closed. The practice of law during this pandemic or even going to law school is a challenge. Schools have canceled their graduations. To sit for the Bar requires hundreds of people, row after row, sitting for their examination. Euphorically, they are not having to pass the bar because of these unique circumstances. Law graduates are also not finding jobs because law firms are struggling. The LSAT examination is given at home. Law school classes are online. Jawan Finley is a family law lawyer and a member of the firm of the Mallilo and Grossman, in Queens, NY. She is president of the Macon B. Allen Bar Association. Give us some of the ways the pandemic has affected the practice of law?
Jawan Finley: An Executive Order basically shut the courthouse doors. I had a situation with a nurse who shared custody. The father took this pandemic as an opportunity to make a power grab. He argued that the mother, a nurse, should have no access because she’s predisposed to COVID-19. The situation with that nurse was rectified by a judge, familiar with the matter. My client was reunited with her daughter after a Skype hearing.
Browne-Marshall: The attorneys and judges are on Skype?
Finley: The courts haven’t really fleshed out how to bring in witnesses. At this point, we’ve had conferences through Skype.
Browne-Marshall: Law firms are struggling like other businesses?
Finley: We’ve had to lay-off more than half of our support staff and attorneys have taken pay cuts. Attorneys are doing the work of their paralegals, their legal assistants. Financially we’re trying to figure out ways to recoup money. A client inquired as to how we could request payment under these circumstances. I had to explain that in order to keep the doors open and continue to bring justice we have to collect outstanding fees.
Browne-Marshall: Thank you Jawan Finley, president of the Macon B. Allen Bar Association, and a member of Mallilo and Grossman law firm. Monica Doula is a criminal defense lawyer with the Legal Aid Society (in New York City). How has the pandemic affected your ability to represent your clients?
Monica Doula: There are no juries. There are no grand jurors. The governor has suspended all statutes of limitations. Our clients’ cases are frozen in place until the government issues an order saying we can proceed.
Browne-Marshall: Are you representing clients virtually? One of the core tenets of a criminal case, any legal case, is confidentially with one’s client.
Doula: Yes, correct. Our clients are arraigned remotely. There is no judge in the courtroom. The prosecutor isn’t in the courtroom and neither is a defense attorney. Prior to your client being arraigned, you are speaking to them virtually, allegedly that’s confidential. It’s very difficult to talk to your client through a portal.
Browne-Marshall: We don’t know who’s in the room?
Doula: They set up videos in the booth. A client comes into the booth. We’re able to see them. Sometimes you need to see your client’s injury. You need to say things to your client. You can do it. But it’s not confidential.
Browne-Marshall: And the Speedy Trial Act?
Doula: Our clients don’t understand. We have people sitting in jail.
Browne-Marshall: And sitting in jail is a medically vulnerable situation, given the corona virus. Who’s in the physical court building?
Doula: If someone’s being arraigned, they are in central booking.
Browne-Marshall: You are at home. Where is the prosecutor?
Doula: At home also.
Browne-Marshall: And where is the judge?
Doula: At home.
Browne-Marshall: This is what we’re calling the practice of law today?
Doula: It’s difficult. Sometimes you need to say, “do you know this person? Is this what happened? Were you there?” And you can’t do that.
Browne-Marshall: Nothing is confidential?
Browne-Marshall: This is “Law of the Land.” Our goal is to empower and inform. Thank you.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a writer, civil rights attorney, playwright, author of “The Voting Rights War” and Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY ), at work on her debut novel of historical fiction. Follow @gbrownemarshall. Listen to ‘Law of the Land’ podcast. Andres Estevez assisted in adapting this interview from “Law of the Land with Gloria J. Browne-Marshall” on WBAI 99.5FM, wbai.org.