COVID-19 and the Courts: How Innovations Make Pennsylvania’s Legal System Work During a Pandemic

There’s no question that COVID-19 has caused problems in Pennsylvania courts, especially as they attempt to juggle the demand for social distancing and the need for jury trials.

Yet this added pressure has also resulted in beneficial changes, including streamlining that might not have happened otherwise.

In Dauphin County, for example, the courts were even able to speed up the pace of criminal trials, deputy court administrator Robert Sisock said on Monday.

In the pre-COVID days – 2019 to be exact – the county conducted about 100 jury trials, Sisock said. Yet, with new, seemingly more restrictive virus protocols in place, courts in Dauphin County conducted 45 of those trials between August and October alone. No trial had taken place between March and July due to the pandemic.

At the rate of August through October, the county is expected to be able to conduct 120 to 150 criminal trials per year under its new protocols once COVID finally subsides, Sisock said. He attributed the changes made to combat the virus to speeding up the process.

Dauphin County CourthouseMatt Miller, PennLive

The county no longer brings in juries of 150 to 200 people at a time for a week of trial, Sisock said. Instead, it does not convene more than 50 committees at a time and select juries a few weeks before each trial rather than having jury selection begin on the first day of the trial.

So, he said, would-be jurors know they will be sitting on a specific case and should not chill their heels for a week while waiting to see whether or not they are selected for trial. In the courtroom, jurors are spaced out in jurors’ boxes and in the gallery to meet social distancing requirements, Sisock said.

Whether COVID has created a larger than normal backlog of ongoing criminal trials is difficult to answer. As Sisock noted, very few criminal cases end in trials. Most are dealt with through advocacy. It is not possible to determine in advance whether a case will actually go to trial.

“Less than 1% of our criminal cases are resolved by a jury,” Sisock said.

The pressure was also eased by a drop in the filing of new criminal cases, he said. Criminal records for Dauphin County fell from 1,500 to 2,000 during the pandemic and recurring lockdowns ordered to try to contain it, he said. There was simply less possibility of crime.

“The people who stay at home have been beneficial in some ways,” Sisock said.

He said he expects many of the COVID-inspired changes to the jury trial system to be implemented in the post-virus era. “We really are allocating juror resources more efficiently,” Sisock said. “I actually think we are doing a better job because of COVID. “

Melissa Calvanelli, administrator of the Cumberland County Court, said the effect of COVID-19 on the functioning of her court is “actually not bad.”

Cumberland County typically has 500 to 600 pending trial cases during a normal trial period, she said. There are 700 waiting for the next term in March, she said, but, as usual, only a handful are likely to appear before a jury.


Cumberland County Courthouse in Carlisle, Pa. MARK PYNES, The Patriot-NewsThe Patriot-News

COVID really hasn’t reduced the county jury trial numbers at all, Calvanelli said. “In 2019, we had 26 criminal jury trials and three civilian jury trials,” she said. “In 2020, we had 25 criminal trials and one civil jury trial. “

The number of new criminal cases fell when Governor Tom Wolf imposed the lockdown last March, “but the number of cases has leveled off a bit since then,” Calvanelli said.

“I feel like Cumberland County has weathered this pretty well,” she said. “Although we have seen jury trial terms overturned, we have embraced the technology and continued to have courts.”

There were contortions, such as in a homicide trial in August where jurors were in the courtroom with attorneys and witnesses and everyone watched the proceedings on a video stream in another room. ‘hearing.

The methods of handling jury trials and court proceedings in general differ somewhat from county to county. At the start of the pandemic, the state Supreme Court gave county presidents the power to make changes and impose restrictions to tailor their court’s operations to the demands of the pandemic, noted Stacy Witalec, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Courts Administration Office.

Federally, all jury trials have been stayed in the U.S. Intermediate District Court in Pennsylvania for security reasons amid the pandemic. The demands of a speedy trial are also postponed due to the health crisis. As in county courts, federal criminal trials are relatively rare, with the vast majority of cases resolved by plea.

American courthouse

The American Courthouse in Harrisburg

In January, Intermediate District Chief Justice John E. Jones III extended the postponement of jury trials until at least March 1.

“The goals of justice served by such actions and such delay materially outweigh the best interests of the public and the accused in a speedy trial in all of these pending criminal cases, because, at least, the health circumstances and safety caused by COVID-19 make it necessarily and equally highly unlikely that a jury can be assembled in any criminal case under current public health circumstances and under applicable guidelines and orders of local, state and local health and government authorities. federal, ”Jones concluded.

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