Law360 (September 15, 2020, 7:46 PM EDT) -- Pennsylvania's Fifth Judicial District, which covers Allegheny County and Pittsburgh, will use the city's David L. Lawrence Convention Center starting next month to provide enough space for social distancing to resume jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic, the court ordered Tuesday.
After shutting down jury trials since March, the state's second busiest court will resume both civil and criminal trials by using the the convention center for jury selection and civil trials, while criminal trials will utilize the largest rooms in the City-County Building and the Allegheny County Courthouse previously dedicated to civil jury selection and meetings of the Allegheny County Council.
"For purposes of this order and to hear and dispose of matters set forth in this order, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and the Gold Room located on the fourth floor of the courthouse are deemed court facilities," Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark wrote in her order. "The Allegheny County sheriff shall provide security for all court activities in the convention center and for jury trials in the courthouse and the City-County Building."
The court will resume jury selection at the convention center Oct. 19. The administrative judges for each division will work on prioritizing which cases will move ahead toward trial, the order said.
Allegheny County's courts suspended jury trials in March, and remain under an emergency declaration due to the pandemic until the end of the year. A prior move toward reopening the courts had been called off in July amid an outbreak of COVID-19 cases among court employees, including an assistant district attorney who died.
Under the order, all jury selection and civil trials will take place at the convention center, a 1.5-million-square-foot facility along the Allegheny River in Downtown Pittsburgh, about five blocks from the main courthouse. Criminal trials will be held in one of the larger courtrooms on the third floor of the Allegheny County Courthouse; in the courthouse's "Gold Room," a large meeting room and auditorium primarily used for government meetings; or in the jury assignment room of the City-County Building next door to the courthouse, where the civil division typically holds its proceedings.
Other minor matters, such as traffic court, could be moved to the convention center as the president judge and sheriff's office see fit, the order said.
Everyone attending court proceedings at each of the three buildings will undergo standard security screenings, including passing through a metal detector, and will also have their temperature checked before entering the rooms being used for court, the order said. Face masks will be mandatory. The public and news media will only observe proceedings from a separate room.
The rest of the prior order, which directed many other proceedings and nonjury trials to be held via videoconferencing, remained in effect, Tuesday's order said.
The Allegheny County district attorney's office said in a statement that it had worked with court administrators since the beginning of the summer to develop the plan for reopening, and will continue to help tweak the operations of the courts as needed.
"The citizens of our county are the foundation of our system of justice. If the courts want to reintroduce the public to the courthouse, then there has to be complete agreement on how to maintain safety for all," said District Attorney Stephen Zappala. "My number one priority remains the safety of the general public and safety of the employees who occupy all of the floors and offices of this courthouse. The updated order appears at first glance to sufficiently address my concerns but it is a work in progress and I expect there to be adjustments as necessary."
--Editing by Stephen Berg.
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