The Bronx Supreme Court Law Library opened days, months, and even more than a year after the other boroughs’ public law libraries following the COVID-19 shutdown, and the court’s reasoning is unclear, revealing a lack of transparency over public access.
Each courthouse in the five boroughs has a public law library with court cases, laws and legal publications open for the public to conduct legal research, including LexisNexis and Westlaw databases, which normally require paid subscriptions. The one in the Bronx was the last to reopen on Monday, but that hasn’t been made clear to the public, with a nonfunctional phone line — that both last week and this week leads to a voicemail service with no option to leave a voicemail — and outdated information on the New York Courts website.
Nori Vass, a Queens-based legal assistant, has used the Queens and Bronx law libraries over the years for both professional and personal purposes, utilizing daily law journals, legal newspapers, databases and help from librarians.
She said in an interview with the Bronx Times that she has depended on the resource when she had trouble securing a lawyer for housing and family courts, and when her lawyer was too busy to answer all her questions.
“If you want to know more of your rights and your attorney is not responding, the law library is the best place when you’re not getting answers from anyone in the legal field,” she said.
As for why the Bronx location was the last to reopen, Lucian Chalfen, the spokesperson for the New York Office of Court Administration, told the Bronx Times that each court decides how it operates, and that there is no overarching law librarian. Sue Ludington, the chief law librarian at the New York State Unified Court System, declined to comment, referring all inquiries to Chalfen, who said she is not involved in the daily operation of the libraries.
The Bronx court felt that people’s needs would be met because the Bronx Bar Association’s library, which is in the same building as the court’s public law library at 851 Grand Concourse, reopened in November 2021, Chalfen said. He said that according to the Bronx court, the bar library is available to anyone. But according to the Bronx Bar Association Executive Director Mary Conlan, the bar association’s library is for members of the Bronx Bar only. The public can only use the library to be referred to private attorneys, she said.
The Bar Association’s website also indicates that the bar library resources are for members, also contradicting Chalfen and the court’s claim.
The Manhattan law library was the first to reopen, at 80 Center St., in May 2021 when the courts returned to 100% in-person staffing, according to Chalfen. The Kings County Supreme Court Law Library at 360 Adams St. in Brooklyn was the next to reopen in June 2021; the Richmond County law library at 25 Hyatt St. in Staten Island reopened in October 2021 and the Queens Supreme Court Law Library at 88-11 Sutphin Boulevard just opened back up on April 25, 2022.
However, even though Brooklyn’s library opened shortly after Manhattan’s, people have assumed the library has been closed because other boroughs’ locations were closed, Brooklyn law librarian Anton Matejka told the Bronx Times.
Or, perhaps they thought it was closed because the courts’ website has maintained out-of-date information about which libraries are open.
The New York Courts website states on its libraries page: “Many of our public access law libraries are closed, or open by appointment only, due to the coronavirus pandemic; Review this list to determine whether the law library closest to you is currently open.”
The page still links, as of Wednesday, to an outdated document that says it was last updated on March 11, 2022 — therefore still listing Queens and the Bronx law libraries as closed. But the document also lists Brooklyn as closed, despite the location being open for almost a year.
Vass, who regularly called to see when the court libraries would be opening as cases picked up this year, said librarians had told her that only Manhattan’s and Staten Island’s law libraries had opened, consistent with the incorrect information online that Brooklyn had been closed. As for when the remaining libraries would reopen, Vass said the Queens library had directed her to the Manhattan library, which gave her different information than the Chief Clerk’s office.
“Every call was a different story and I was totally confused,” she said.
And she felt uneasy about the rollout, wondering why Queens, the Bronx — and she thought Brooklyn — were taking so long to open.
“Was it based on economics, or based on need?” she said. “Or what was going on? Because it seemed a little unfair and biased that the outer boroughs were not open, as if we didn’t need the service.”
The Legal Aid Society declined to comment and the Bronx Defenders and Sanctuary for Families did not respond to requests for comment. The Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice referred to the law libraries for comment.