Deal Eyed In Fight Over Virtual Pittsburgh Court Access

By Matt Fair
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Law360 (March 29, 2021, 6:59 PM EDT) -- A civil rights watchdog said Monday it was giving a Pennsylvania state judge three weeks to show he was complying with a new order mandating virtual access to criminal proceedings in Pittsburgh before potentially dropping a lawsuit accusing him of unconstitutionally shutting the public out of hearings.

While the Pittsburgh-based Abolitionist Law Center filed federal claims at the beginning of the month alleging Judge Anthony Mariani was improperly barring members of the public from virtually accessing proceedings in his courtroom, the case may be headed to a resolution after Allegheny County's president judge inked an order Friday requiring all members of the bench to provide remote access to hearings given ongoing coronavirus risks.

"We're looking to see that Judge Mariani and all the judges comply with the order," said Nicholas Riley, an attorney with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center who represents the ALC. "We're going to monitor the situation and if we feel satisfied that the order really has solved this problem then we'll likely dismiss the lawsuit."

The ALC, a nonprofit law firm that operates a court-watching project, claimed in its lawsuit that Judge Mariani had repeatedly denied its requests to remotely observe proceedings in his courtroom despite other parties, such as attorneys and witnesses, participating virtually.

The lawsuit comes as the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas has continued to suspend jury trials and most in-person proceedings since COVID-19 cases began spiking again last fall.

Despite the suspension, the complaint claimed that Judge Mariani's staff was still meeting and working in-person at the county courthouse, and requiring that members of the public who wished to observe proceedings do so from within his courtroom even when other parties participate remotely.

Meanwhile, Riley said, most other judges were agreeing to grant remote access to members of the public through a portal set up by court administration at the beginning of the year.

Riley said Judge Mariani's staff did not explain why the judge was refusing to grant remote access to the public for proceedings he presided over.

A message seeking comment left at Judge Mariani's chambers Monday afternoon was not immediately returned.

Court systems in Pennsylvania have struggled to find workable solutions to accommodate public access to legal proceedings during the pandemic.

While the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas launched a system last fall to livestream criminal trials over YouTube, local prosecutors petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to shut down the practice due to concerns about privacy for crime victims and the possibility of witness intimidation.

The court eventually rolled out a new system that provided space in Philadelphia's criminal courthouse for members of the public to watch livestreamed trials being held in person, and also allowed members of the public to request virtual access to criminal proceedings.

The Abolitionist Law Center is represented by Witold J. Walczak and Sara J. Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Nicolas Y. Riley, Robert D. Friedman and Jennifer Safstrom of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center.

Judge Mariani is represented by Geri St. Joseph of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The case is Abolitionist Law Center v. Judge Anthony Mariani, case number 2:21-cv-00285, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

--Additional reporting by Matthew Santoni. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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