Throughout the US, many courts face the challenge of providing services while concurrently attempting to comply with health guidance from the national, state and regional authorities. In many cases this has resulted in denial of access by the public to trials, and restricted access to the court clerk and other court offices. Frequently court and county law libraries are also closed, or their access is severely restricted.
Within New York, some county libraries are closed and others remain open. There is not a high correlation between infection rate and library closure. For example, Central and Western New York tend to have their libraries closed, where as many down state libraries remain open, yet the COVID-19 infection rates are higher in the downstate communities.
In New York, Judiciary Law specifies that every county is to have a law library available for open use by the public. Pro se litigants, students, and many attorneys regularly use the public law libraries. During COVID-19 in locations where the libraries are closed, those people have been unable to have full use of the libraries. This happened without notice, and in many areas there are few alternatives for locating the books, papers and special collections that he law libraries have amassed over the years.
If some one is involved in litigation, and suddenly they have no law library access, it can substantially disadvantage them. They may have only access to online resources, which generally will not have legislative history available, bill jackets, older publications on common law and equity issues. The sudden lack of access to information could cause someone to fail to prevail in a matter they might otherwise prevailed in.
Like New York, every state appears to have similar provisions, where there is public access to law libraries. So the access to libraries is universally provided. Even prisoners in the penal system have an assurance of meaningful library access. It might be debatable whether their access is free and unrestricted, but SCOTUS has assured their right of access to libraries and other reference materials.
Is public law library access a right?
Is library access part of full access to the courts?
Is the closure of public access law libraries resulting in denial of due process to those who rely on those resources to help them litigate matters?
If a party believes they are so disadvantaged, is there precedence for the courts to suspend their matters until such time when open access to public law libraries is reestablished? Or should the court system provide meaningful accommodation to the pro se litigant, or even the small practice attorney?
And if the courts make meaningful accommodation, does that deny any party fair and timely justice?
Addendum #1 New York Judiciary Law, Article 21, addresses court libraries. There are some exceptions, but 813 states in part: (emphasis added)
Each county of the state shall have a court law library which shall be governed as provided by section eight hundred fourteen of this article. Such libraries shall be open to the public, however, the chief administrator of the courts may issue guidelines for the use and operation of such libraries. ...
Addendum #2 An informal survey of about 20 cases, with pro se litigants, who have claimed that access to the libraries impairs their ability to access the courts, has shown that in every instance, dates for appeal perfection extensions and adjournments have been granted. Furthermore, due to the highly specialized nature of law it has been determined that the outdated books that regular public libraries and even a Westlaw subscription to basic services may be inadequate. From a unpublished ruling.
I have not found any relevant findings at the federal level, as it seems that access to law libraries for federal litigation is assumed at the state level. However, like many our law libraries remain closed even though many other public venues are open at this time.