Courts and COVID-19: How area courts keep cases moving ahead during pandemic

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BLAIR COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) –– On a typical Thursday before the pandemic, the main courtroom in the Huntingdon County Courthouse would be full of people as more than 100 defendants would wait to step before President Judge George Zanic. 

On jury selection days, even more, people would pack into the courtroom, so when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and most counties declared a judicial emergency in March 2020, jury trials, in-person court filings, rules pertaining to a speedy trial and all but a dozen essential court functions came to a screeching halt. 

The Supreme Court left it up to the president judges in each county to tailor their rules and procedures during the judicial emergency to fit their particular circumstances, something Judge Zanic recalled earlier this month was a challenge given the ever-shifting nature of the pandemic. 

“I think, actually, our efficiency has improved throughout this,” Judge Zanic said. “And I have to give all our credit to a few people. Number one, the court administration staff – and my law clerk. We were repeatedly making new rules and coming up with different procedures and having to notify the attorneys, ‘Were’ doing it this way now because here’s what we know about the science.’” 

That meant turning to Zoom and conducting hearings and other proceedings by video, which also meant holding training sessions for attorneys that until then weren’t necessarily tech-savvy. 

“So, it was always changing on the fly,” Zanic said. “So we came up with court rules that suited Huntingdon County – but the amount of work that court administration had to do to change the rules was significant, but that lent to new procedures.” 

“For instance, in the past, in criminal court, we would have 125 people show up at 9 o’clock and we’d just go through the cases,” Judge Zanic said. “Now, moving out of the pandemic, we still can’t have 125 people at the same time so we schedule people on the half-hour.” 

The judge said he thinks the staggered scheduling also helped the defense attorneys and prosecutors with the District Attorney’s office get more organized. 

“That’s one area where we’re pretty pleased with changes that were made due to the pandemic,’ Judge Zanic added.  

Another success came outside the realm of criminal court – as Judge Zanic reminded is just a small piece of the puzzle. By using teleconferencing and videoconferencing, the county’s domestic relations office could continue handling cases and never had to stop during the pandemic. He pointed out that those kinds of conferences can be emotional and antagonistic, so being able to take care of the business at hand through something GoToMeeting was a great buffer. 

“We don’t have a backlog and have been successful in managing our cases for a lot of reasons,” the judge explained. “I think the main reason – and I mentioned court administration and the work they’ve done – but we really have to look at what was done by our magisterial district judges.” 

Huntingdon County never stopped holding preliminary hearings and that prevented a backlog, the judge said. 

“Because we were able to keep doing preliminary hearings, the case flow kept going,” Judge Zanic said, noting credit goes to the offices of the District Attorney and Public Defender along with the county probation office, where despite the pandemic officers continued to issue detainers for violations and kept track of people they were supervising.  

Even court filings, which prior to the pandemic had to be handled in person, can now be done online through email and is something the judge said he wants to continue. 

“Again, I want to stress that the best way to do things, I still think, is in person,” Judge Zanic said. “We don’t want to restrict access to the court. Moving out of the pandemic, if people want to come in and file things, that’s certainly allowable. If you don’t have the communication technology ability, that’s fine, but we want to have people to be able to file things from afar.” 

Zanic was selected as one of 10 judges to serve on a committee to look at how the courts can use communicative technologies such as video conferencing well after the pandemic is history. 

“Our task is to study the constitutional ramifications and other issues related to using advanced communication technology, even when there is not a judicial emergency,” Judge Zanic said. “There would have to be changes in rules, such as sentencing rules and guilty pleas and trials – and does the defendant have the ability to not be present for those types of things? That’s what we’re studying right now.” 

It’s those proceedings that require in-person court that prove the greatest challenge during the pandemic and none as much as jury selection and jury trials.  

Because of the pandemic, it wasn’t until October that Huntingdon County could hold its first trial after the judicial emergency was declared and that month they were able to hold two before concerns over the virus shut things down. 

It wasn’t possible to have 125 people come in for jury selection and maintain social distancing, so by the time February rolled around and trials resumed, the court had come up with a system where they brought in potential jurors 20 at a time. 

“We selected juries in a very unique way,” the judge explained. “We had people coming in 20 people every hour and a half to select juries. Now we’re bringing in about 40 people at a time as the science has developed. We think we can keep people safe that way.” 

Blair County President Judge Elizabeth Doyle said while the pandemic restrictions have caused a slowdown in criminal cases through the court system, the progress the court has made in adapting t using technology this past year was anything but slow. 

“We had to go from Flintstones to Star Trek in one month,” the judge said of the immediate need in March and April of 2020 to find technological ways to conduct necessary business at the courthouse while everything was shutting down. 

“We are in great shape with most of our the courts,” Judge Doyle explained. “We had a slowdown with our criminal cases because if you can’t get criminal defendants and their attorneys into the building, it’s very difficult to prosecute the criminal cases.” 

Judge Doyle said that courts have added events such as one recently where 85 criminal cases were called forward in one day with about half resulting in a disposition. 

“And we have a solid plan going forward to dispose of the other half,” Judge Doyle said. “Those are great strides forward.” 

Blair County saw only two of the last nine trial terms canceled because of the restrictions and Doyle noted a civil trial, one for medical malpractice, was held in June 2020. She pointed out that criminal cases – more than 2,000 each year – make up 36 percent of the court caseload, with custody matters, guardianships, adoptions and other functions equally as important in people’s lives.  

“I’m not worried about a criminal backlog,” the judge said. “We have a slow-down. We don’t have a backlog and we have a good plan to move forward. The stakeholders in Blair County work very well together – the DA, the Courts and the Public Defender. So, we’re — you know Larry the Cable Guy – We’re Gonna Git-R-Done.” 

Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks said he’s concerned the slowdown will lead to a “log jam” given that typical criminal cases take 3 ½ to 4 months from arrest until the first trial date is set in Blair County.  

“There is a situation now where a large number of incarcerated defendants are poised for release due to length of time jail without a trial,” Weeks said, adding his office is focusing on cases of jailed defendants first. 

“I think from a logistical standpoint, right now we have to lessen the backlog,” Weeks said. Because of this, his office has conceded to offering fine-only or even no-fine plea deals for low-level, misdemeanor drug offenses such as marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession. 

Cases involving victims are not so easily worked out and since every defendant has the right to go to trial, no one can force anyone to take a plea deal for the sake of lightning the courts docket, he noted. 

Weeks commended the five Blair County judges for “going above and beyond” making court dates available for defendants to plea. And said he and his staff have sent some proposals as to how to “jump-start the system” to the Blair County judges. Those ideas include lengthening the Spring trial term and conducting jury trials right after a jury is selected instead of the usual practice of selecting a jury for a case one week and starting trial the next. 

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As it stands, many times defendants wait until their trial is to start before they take a plea deal, so if defendants are scheduled for a jury selection with the understanding the trial will start immediately, Weeks believes it will make better use of potential jurors. 

“We have a significant amount of trial-ready cases that in my opinion demands the need to do more than the status quo or what we typically do to kind of get that number lower and caught up. 

Standing in Courtroom No. 1 at the Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg, District Attorney Greg Neugebauer said without all that space it would have been impossible to start holding trials as early as they did in 2020. Like in Huntingdon County, the county’s district courts continued holding preliminary hearings and hearings continued at the courthouse and that has helped keep criminal cases moving forward. 

“I can say, I believe from a county perspective, we’re in really good shape,” Neugebauer said recently. “I believe we’re positioned where the Long-term effects of the changes moving forward are going to be minimal if any. If anything, positive.” 

Neugebauer credited President Judge Norman Krumenacker III for his leadership in navigating the county’s court system through the rough waters of the pandemic.  

“I believe and I hope that the process that we’ve followed relative to video hearings continues,” he said. “It’s very efficient. Frankly, it saves the county money. The sheriff’s deputies aren’t transporting. It’s safer. We’re not having inmates cycled in and out of the prison, which I believe they also like.” 

Neugebauer said he is proud to be part of the judicial system in Cambria County and what everyone has accomplished together in the past year. 

“It’s an essential service,” Neugebauer said. “I don’t think people, a lot of times, think of the criminal justice system as being an essential function of society – but it truly is. We had an obligation to the defendants, the victims and to the community to continue to work through the pandemic, which we have done and I believe we have done very well.” 

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