By: Fern Sidman
Since the deadly coronavirus reared its ugly head in March of 2020, lockdowns, quarantines, masking up and social distancing have been the order of the day. As a result, businesses and schools were shuttered as well as government agencies. In terms of executing justice on all fronts, one of our most important institutions also ceased functioning. Our court system had no alternative but to freeze actions on pending cases in the spring of 2020, but now that has all changed
With a palpable exuberance reverberating in his voice, Justice Lawrence Knipel (who holds the position of New York State Administrative Judge for Civil Matters, Second Judicial District (Kings County, Brooklyn) told the Jewish Voice, “Yes!!! The courts are definitely open and we are in business again.”
Despite his very hectic schedule, Justice Knipel was kind enough to grant the Jewish Voice an in-person interview at his office at Brooklyn’s Supreme Court building.
For those who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of our court system and the judges that preside over them, the Jewish Voice is honored to offer some essential background information on Justice Knipel and his extraordinary judicial legacy as well as his litany of stellar accomplishments.
Since being appointed to the bench by former Chief Judge of New York, Jonathan Lippmann, Justice Knipel has deftly implemented many innovative programs to streamline court procedures, thus increasing the level of efficiency. Among them is the inauguration of the nation’s largest and most comprehensive central pre-trial discovery complex. In addition to his administrative duties, Justice Knipel continues to preside over Commercial matters.
As a Trial Justice, he successfully resolved complex SEQRA, Toxic Tort, Employment Discrimination and Medical Malpractice litigation. He presided over the highly successful Medical Malpractice Early Settlement Part in Kings County and has been elected to an ASTAR Science and Technology Fellowship.
Between 1998 and 2002 Justice Knipel presided in the Criminal Term of New York State Supreme Court, Kings County, during which time, he presided over a large number of criminal felony trials.
In addition to his law degree, Justice Knipel has earned a Master of Laws in Taxation from New York University.
Justice Knipel is a frequent lecturer on topics relating to Medical Malpractice and Trial Practice. His prior honors include the Annual Award of the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Benjamin Cardozo Award from the Jewish Lawyers Guild, the Ecumenical Award from the Catholic Lawyers Guild, the New York County Lawyers Tort Law Section Award and the Distinguished State Jurist Award from the Defense Association of New York.
As to streamlining the 11-tiered court system and efforts to reduce the multiplicity of the courts in the New York State, Judge Knipel said, “Whether we want to accept it or not, the future in terms of modern technology is coming anyway. As such, virtual trials and hearings are going to be taking place via video conferences and it would behoove the courts to make the legal process easier for both litigants and attorneys.”
Observing that the court is essentially a conservative institution that often displays obduracy in terms of executing change, Judge Knipel said that with the advent of Covid, it has motivated the court in terms of keeping up with a world that has gone virtual in many aspects.
“Even though Covid has been a devastating emergency, in a way it has had a good effect on the court in that we are now leap frogging ahead in terms of technological advancements, “ said Judge Knipel.
He said that virtual trials and hearings are taking place on a regular basis, out of necessity. “For the litigant, why should they have to come downtown and wait hours and hours for their case to be called and then find out that it is only a 5 minute hearing. All of this can be done through teleconference where the litigant can be in the comfort of their own home and the attorney representing them can remain in their office, “ he notes.
Explaining the genesis of the bulky court system and efforts to condense it in order that long delays do not hamper judicial decisions and outcomes, Judge Knipel says that such a scenario has developed over the course of time.
“The New York State constitution was written before the American revolution. Every few years they change things and usually add things. Years ago there were even more courts. The constitution really needs to be amended as it is a weighty tome with intricate regulations. Every 20 years, the people can vote for a convention to amend the constitution, but some are opposed because they are protected by its statutes,“ he observes.
He also points out that if the constitution is amended, then some judges will lose power while others will gain power. “Some judges are elected, some are appointed by the mayor and the governor. Some are nominated at judicial conventions. There are those who oppose it because people do not like change and others have their own interests in keeping the division of the courts. Because of institutional biases, there are those who are resistant to anything new, “ Judge Knipel said.
Joining Judge Knipel in the noble quest to transform the dense court system into one that performs more expeditiously and effectively for litigants is Janet DiFiore, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals and of the State of New York.
“Streamlining the courts has been a very important project of Judge DiFiore’s for many years and I am proud to be working with her on this,” said Judge Knipel.
To offer an example of current court inefficiency, if someone is going through a divorce proceeding, they need to present their case in Supreme Court. If there are child custody issues involved then the litigants will need to work with another judge in family court. This means they are working with two or more judges.
Judge Knipel says that working with one judge will help in getting decisions for litigants in a quicker manner.
“If a litigant files a motion in Supreme Court and the litigant dies you get a stay but then it has to go to Surrogates court. If you are lucky, then you wait months. If you are unlucky, you can wait years,” said Judge Knipel. He adds, “these are the kind of problems that occur with the divisions of the court.”
As to business at the courts returning to the pre-Covid level, Judge Knipel says that Brooklyn Supreme Court is now conducting six to eight trials each day and that it is the busiest court system in the country.
“We are open for motions. We have calendar calls. We are having jury pools. And there is no reason to be concerned about safety as we have instituted rules about masking and social distancing, he said.
While the courts officially closed in April they did open on a limited basis in June of 2020.
Earlier this year, Judge Knipel threw a case out of court because an attorney representing a plaintiff in an accident case refused to wear a mask. “I gave the attorney every opportunity to go ahead with the case. I offered the attorney a smaller room to present his case and even asked if a different attorney from his firm could handle the case in his stead but he would not budge, “ he said. He added that, “I told the plaintiff that they could still pursue their case with other arrangements being made”. Because of the lawyer’s refusal, the law firm he represented paid all the court costs.
In terms of conducting virtual cases, Judge Knipel said that recently he presided over a case in which those appearing as witnesses in a commercial matter were from all parts of the world. “I had a person from Tel Aviv, a person from Miami, and people from other parts of the country and it all ran very well,” he said.
In addition, Judge Knipel described the kind of cases that are handled in the Civil Division of the Supreme Court. Such cases include matters pertaining to personal injury, guardianship, commercial litigation, major landlord-tenant litigation and all matrimonial cases.
“Right now, there are 50,000 cases pending and 98 percent of them do result in a settlement,” he said.
Pertaining to guardianship cases, Judge Knipel speaks of those who petition the court, whether they be family members or the authorities, on behalf of those who present a danger to themselves or others.
“On many occasions you will have a mother who tells the court that that her mentally disturbed son is not taking his medications. She says that he is putting his fist in the wall or creating a terrible disturbance outside. We send that person to the hospital for a mental evaluation and hopefully to get them assistance, “ said Judge Knipel.
Judge Knipel is no stranger to the deleterious effects of the Covid virus. In March of 2020, he was hospitalized at NYU in New York City and remained on a respirator for eight days.
“When I first contracted the virus, I felt lousy but thought that I would feel better so I did not go to the hospital. Eventually, I could not walk or even move. It was then that I asked my wife to take me to the hospital. I must admit that I was treated very well at NYU and really received the best care possible, “ he said.
Due to his rigorous work ethic, Judge Knipel was reluctant to stay home even before the Covid virus struck due to the pending cases in the court. Even after he was released from the hospital he needed sufficient time to recuperate but still conducted court business by phone.
While he was away from his duties, Judge Ellen Spodek replaced him for about a month.
“While we restricted the number of cases in June, juror pools are now coming in and while criminal cases are going a bit slower than usual, we are on an upswing. The courts are fully operational now, open for business and we welcome everyone back in the interest of providing justice to all those who seek it, “ he said.