Hearings in the Huntingdon County Court of Common Pleas will be held via Zoom through the end of Mayas the court expands its operations as much as possible to keep cases moving forward while remaining on the COVID-19 defensive.
In an administrative order filed this week, Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic directed that, starting May 4, the court will “resume normal operations to the fullest extent available” using advanced communication technology, Zoom in particular. The protocols will remain in place through the end of the Judicial Emergency which Zanic extended to May 31.
The order states that the Zoom hearings are mandatory.
Telephone conference, in use since the emergency declaration was issued March 16, will now be used as backup.
Zanic said Huntingdon County is modeling its video procedures on those now being employed by the Texas court system.
“In the state of Texas, their Supreme Court has made this mandatory,” Zanic said. “Our Supreme Court has allowed each president judge to handle it their own way. The way I run Huntingdon County is different than, say, Philadelphia, and so that’s why we chose video and modeled the Zoom protocols after what was done in Texas.”
Zanic said the transition to Zoom is partially complete, noting court officials, attorneys and defendants just started using Zoom and that Zoom instructions are now included with hearing notices. Defendants who are in custody will appear in court via video conference which the court utilized even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We’re fortunate that, because of the set up with the SCIs, we’ve done a lot with video conferencing, so we’re a few steps ahead of other judicial areas,” he said.
Zanic also pointed out that IT staff starting working Friday on setting up a live-streaming option to restore public access to court proceedings.
“We’re not excluding anyone,” the judge said. “We just believe that anybody in the public can come into the courtroom, in this case electronically, like it’s always been.” As usual, the public is prohibited from photographing or making recordings of court proceedings.
What remains for resolution is how to hold jury selection and trials.
The conventional jury selection process in which the court summons 100-plus prospective jurors into the courtroom, is far from compatible with social-distancing guidelines. Zanic said “Rule 600” which covers defendants’ right to a speedy trial has been suspended due to the logistical issues brought about by the virus.
“We can’t conduct our jury trials and as long as there is a judicial emergency, we have inmates who are incarcerated and unable to have their constitutionally mandated jury trial,” Zanic said, adding no jury trials are being held in county. He wonders “What’s the new normal going to look like with jury selection?”
Mass criminal court days, usually a once or twice monthly occurrence during which the court often calls 100 or cases, have also been shelved but the cases are still moving through the system — only at a slower pace.
“It just takes a lot more time,” the judge said. “We’re spacing them out by the half-hour. Right now we are backed up by well over 300 cases when you combine criminal and civil cases.”
Zanic said originally, the judicial emergency was to last through the end of April but the state Supreme Court gave presidents judges the authority to extend the declaration through May 31, which Zanic did in an effort to protect the public’s health and safety.
Zanic said he wants Huntingdon County residents to know that the county court system is still functioning, just in a different way.
“I want to stress to people the court is open and it’s open for filing. The prothonotary and clerk of court and the clerk of the orphans court are all here and operating. It’s just different, he said, adding filings are now made electronically.
“The administrative end of running the court system has been a real challenge but our court administration staff have done a great job getting us where we need to be, trying to climb out of the backlog,” Zanic said. “The (Pennsylvania) Supreme Court gave us a list of what are essential hearings and that’s what we’ve been doing since the emergency began, but every hearing is essential to the people involved.”
As such, “The courts have to stay open,” he said.
He said court staff and attorneys are adjusting to the new procedures.
“But I certainly miss having attorneys in the courtroom,” he said “It’s very lonely in the courtroom.”
To read the full text of the administrative order and review the protocols for video hearings, plus other court-related information, visit huntingdoncountycourt.net.
Rebecca can be reached at email@example.com.