Pa. Justices Order Court Reopenings As Virus Cases Wane

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (June 21, 2021, 6:49 PM EDT) -- As COVID-19 cases continue to fall and vaccination rates rise, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Monday ordered judges and staff across the state back to work in person as part of a return to what it called "pre-pandemic status" for judicial operations.

While county-level president judges have been given the latitude since last summer to mandate courthouse closures and provide staff the opportunity to work from home, the state's high court said on Monday that judicial offices needed to reopen in person following the July 4 holiday.

"All courtrooms, adjacent judicial facilities, chambers, and offices within the Unified Judicial System shall be fully opened and staffed by judges and other personnel," the court said in a one-page per curiam order.

The justices ordered a statewide suspension of most courthouse operations in March of last year as the pandemic took hold, but eventually rolled back the restrictions in June, leaving it up to individual counties to decide how best to manage operations on the ground.

But in their order on Monday, the justices stripped local president judges of their authority to declare local judicial emergencies in response to the pandemic.

While some counties began holding in-person jury trials again last summer, larger locales like Philadelphia and Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, only began bringing jurors back into their facilities in the fall before eventually suspending proceedings again as a result of new spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Jury trials in Philadelphia and Allegheny County picked back up in the spring, although a spokesman said that civil trials in Allegheny County weren't expected to start up again until late summer or early fall.

Court systems in Philadelphia, Allegheny County and elsewhere around the commonwealth have also relied heavily on technology like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to conduct hearings and other proceedings remotely.

While the state Supreme Court's order on Monday did not expressly bar such remote proceedings after the July 4 holiday weekend, the justices did say they would require county-level judicial staff to start reporting for work in person and for court facilities to open to the public.

In the case of Philadelphia, spokesman Gabriel Roberts said that the court system was working on scaling up the number of trials and other proceedings being held in person in City Hall, where the civil division sits, and across the street in the city's Stout Center for Criminal Justice.

"The Philadelphia courts will continue the work of steadily, and safely, increasing our operational capacity, as stated in the Supreme Court's order," he said.

Joe Asturi, director of intergovernmental affairs for the Allegheny County courts, said there had already been plans in place to have all employees who'd still been working remotely in Allegheny County return to the office in July.

"It's pretty consistent with what our plans were for July," he said.

--Editing by Daniel King.

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