(TNS) — Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered his courtroom in late March, Lehigh County District Justice Rashid Santiago had hundreds of cases on his calendar. Landlord-tenant disputes, truancy hearings, small claims civil matters and all sorts of criminal cases.
When health officials decide it’s safe to reopen Pennsylvania’s courthouses to the public — perhaps next month, or the month after that, or even later — most of those cases will still be waiting for Santiago’s attention, along with matters filed since the pandemic began.
“My staff is starting to reschedule things, cautiously,” Santiago said. “We can’t just open the floodgates and have 50 hearings in one day. Especially if we’re going to need to keep social distancing.”
Courts across the region are stepping up their use of technology to keep dockets moving. Teleconferencing systems such as Zoom are being used to conduct all types of hearings, with litigants, witnesses, judges and attorneys logging in remotely and communicating through a row of screens.
But some matters, including jury trials, cannot be decided remotely. That has some attorneys worried that they’ll be playing catch-up for months, while their clients wait for justice.
“It’s a concern,” said attorney Kimberly Krupka, who was preparing for jury selection in a medical malpractice trial in late March when COVID-19 struck, forcing a postponement. “I think the courts are doing the best they can to keep things moving, but it’s a question of how to keep people safe.”
After closing courthouses to the public in mid-March, the state Supreme Court last month ordered county courts to resume most operations by May 4, stressing that technology should be used to limit the number of people in court buildings. The order also directed courts to use technology to provide interested parties better access to proceedings that would usually be open to the public.
Hearing in a Kitchen
Lehigh and Northampton judges were already using video and phone conferencing to hear emergency matters. More preliminary hearings for incarcerated defendants moved to Zoom last week in Lehigh County. Northampton County uses Polycom video conferencing.
Though the venue was broken into parts — a defense lawyer’s home office, a white-painted cinder blocked holding cell at the Lehigh County jail, Courtroom 1C on the first floor of the courthouse, a conference room in the district attorney’s office and a state trooper’s kitchen — a preliminary hearing The Morning Call observed via Zoom last week was conducted just like a prepandemic proceeding.
Except that when the lone prosecution witness, a woman wearing a pink face mask in the courtroom, testified, it was difficult to understand her words. District Justice Ronald S. Manescu, hearing the case from a remote office, asked her to lean closer to the microphone.
That hearing went smoothly, ending with the defendant being held for trial. Other hearings last week were continued because witnesses were not available.
Though that’s a common occurrence even when courts are operating normally, each delay during the pandemic compounds a backlog that’s been building up for nearly two months, said defense attorney Paul Missan.
“Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I do worry about my clients who are in jail with this virus going around. You don’t want a healthy young kid who’s a shoplifter getting a death sentence,” he said.
Both state and local judicial emergency orders handed down since the pandemic have prioritized hearings that could result in an incarcerated person being released. Other time-sensitive matters, such as arraignments, search warrant requests and juvenile detention hearings, have also continued despite the court slowdown.
Virtual criminal hearings could be affected by individual police departments’ policies. Allentown police officers, for example, must attend preliminary hearings in person, at the courthouse, and not via Zoom, Chief Glenn Granitz Jr. confirmed.
Missan, who began his career as a prosecutor in the Bronx, one of the first district attorney’s offices in the nation to embrace video to record suspect interviews, said he’s glad to see technology being used during the pandemic. Especially since he has a pregnant wife to worry about.
“The virus is everywhere. So I’m not going anywhere near the courthouse,” he said.
Finding a New Way Forward
Missan said he wouldn’t mind if the courts continued to use Zoom and other technology even after the health crisis passes, especially for simple proceedings that require just a few minutes in court.
“I think it could be a great time saver,” he said.
Krupka also said she’s been impressed by how smoothly virtual hearings have been going. She represented a client at an injunction hearing before Northampton County Judge Abraham Kassis last month. She and her clients were in one courtroom, the judge was in another, and opposing counsel logged in from his office.
“The judge was being extremely careful to make sure everyone was heard,” Krupka said. “It was new for everyone, but I think my clients were satisfied. They also didn’t want to be in a courtroom with lots of people.”
In addition to what he expects to be a “horrible backlog” of cases when courts fully resume, Missan said he’s concerned about upcoming jury trials, which can’t be held virtually. That’s because defendants have the constitutional right to confront their accuser, and jurors are instructed to scrutinize witnesses’ demeanor to judge the validity of their testimony — a task that requires a front row seat to the witness stand.
Missan also thinks many potential jurors may balk at being crowded into a courtroom until COVID-19 is eradicated.
“People have to feel safe. Maybe there’s a way to put protective plexiglass dividers in the jury box, like ones they have in supermarkets" he said.
Krupka said she also thinking about how the coronavirus will change jury trials. In addition to her March med-mal trial, Krupka had trials scheduled in May and June. With jury service canceled statewide through July, those trials have been rescheduled for August and November.
Jury selection usually requires a panel of about 75 people initially questioned in a courtroom together, before the group is winnowed down to 12 jurors and several alternates.
“The question is, how safely do we bring in that large of a panel of jurors?” Krupka said. “I think they’re being hopeful and trying to schedule cases in August, but I don’t know that’s going to happen.”
Lehigh County Judge Melissa Pavlack has been using teleconferencing to conduct protection from abuse hearings and other emergency matters since the pandemic began. Later this month, she’ll oversee adoption hearings, which are usually held in her chambers, via Zoom.
Pavlack said she and her fellow judges are glad that technology exists to safely allow people to have their day in court even while COVID-19 has ground much of society to a halt.
“We have to keep going. So many people are depending on us,” she said.
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