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‘Critical functions’ focus of Blair court reopenings

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County courts are expected to focus on critical functions as they reopen Monday for what’s been described as a slow process toward restoring operations.

For about two months, county and district courts have restricted in-person court hearings and made more use of technology to reduce the number of people in court.

Those practices will continue, President Judge Elizabeth Doyle said this week, as she issued a statement announcing the reopening the courts.

“It (further) lessens the chance of the virus spreading,” Doyle said. “It also gives us time to put together a new jury selection process.”

In Blair County, it’s been typical for 300 to 400 jurors to be summoned for jury selection, depending on the number of juries to be selected and the type of cases to be heard.

With that practice shelved indefinitely in light of the coronavirus, Doyle said she’ll be interested to review jury selection procedures the state Office of Administrative Courts proposes. The state office organized a committee to address a question surfacing in many counties.

One option might be to summon smaller groups of potential jurors, but on a more frequent basis, Doyle said.

Clearfield County, however, is going to try using a larger venue for the process. On June 18, it’s summoning potential jurors to an exposition building on the county fairgrounds. Those called for jury duty have been told to bring and wear face masks.

A jury of 12 people plus alternates were accommodated in a courtroom, with 6 feet of social distancing between each, in Lexington, Ky., where an eight-week federal trial ended in April. In that case, some jurors sat in the jury box, some in front of the box and some in the gallery.

When it came time to deliberate, the jurors avoided a small room and headed instead to a jury lounge where there was more space. Deliberations stretched over nine days in the drug trafficking case where one man was convicted and four others were acquitted.

Critical functions

Before Blair County returns to jury duty, the court’s priorities are to be centered on critical functions outlined in the court’s reopening statement.

They are: emergency bail hearings and habeaus corpus hearings; Gagnon I and II hearings; bench warrant hearings; juvenile delinquency detention; juvenile shelter, adjudication, disposition and permanency hearings; temporary protection-from-abuse hearings; final protection-from-abuse hearings, emergency petitions for child custody or pursuant to the Juvenile Act, emergency petitions for guardianship, civil mental health reviews, emergency equity civil matters including injunctions and stays, any pleading or motion relative to public health concerns and involving immediate and irreparable harm and any other function deemed by the county’s president judge to be essential and consistent with constitutional requirements.

Other directives

— All court calendars, scheduling notices, subpoenas or other court orders compelling the appearance of any attorney, litigant or other participant in any nonessential case by remote methods, or on a limited in-person basis, will be sent on a case-by-case basis until further notice.

— Any pretrial conference, case management conference, status conference or other hearing, whether civil or criminal, may be conducted remotely, or on a limited case-by-case basis, in person, by separate order of court.

— Payments through the cost and fines and domestic relations office may be made electronically or via mail, using check or money order. Starting Monday, the offices will be open for in-person payments, as long as social distancing is maintained.

— Those with matters before the county court or magisterial district court should go through their attorneys to know how their matters will proceed. Those who are self-represented should review their notice of appearance for instructions. For clarification, people may contact the court administration office about county court proceedings or magisterial district court offices.

Magisterial district courts

Blair County’s six magisterial district courts, which continued to address essential functions after closing to the public in March, will make some changes during the reopening process.

The most noticeable ones will likely be on days when criminal preliminary hearings are scheduled.

“We can’t have the days of the overflowing lobby and parking lot,” Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller of Tyrone said. “It’s not in the best interest of anybody.”

To limit the number of people coming to court, district judges are working with the county’s defense attorneys to coordinate cases. Prior to preliminary hearings, they are expected to communicate by telephone or video, and if necessary, in person.

Jailed defendants also will continue to participate in court proceedings via video, Miller said.

Inside Miller’s courtroom, three gallery benches were moved and replaced by a new layout that accommodates social distancing. Access to hearings for the public will remain limited, the judge said.

New procedures in Altoona court

In Altoona’s Central Court, 615 Fourth St., where Magisterial District Judges Ben Jones and Daniel DeAntonio conduct preliminary hearings on Wednesdays, they have come up with a plan to hear cases while also practicing social distancing.

Jones said all defendants will still have to be at central court by 9 a.m. on the Wednesday their preliminary hearing is scheduled. But instead of waiting inside the halls for their case to be called, those charged will be expected to check in, apply for a public defender if needed, then return at a designated time.

“Everybody’s going to have to wear a mask,” Jones said, and disinfectant wipes will be made available.

“We’re going to practice social distancing in the courtroom and waiting areas,” he said.

In addition, victims and witnesses are to be available by telephone, the judge explained, so the hallway area previously reserved for their use can now be a waiting area for defendants, allowing more room for social distancing.

Additional arrangements

Other measures to achieve social distancing include the assignment of an assistant district attorney and assistant public defender to cases of jailed defendants, who will continue to participate in hearings by video, Jones said.

Jones and DeAntonio also plan to set aside Courtroom 2 for attorneys and their clients. Proceedings in the other courtrooms will still be limited to the public with only press access at this time, the judge said.

Judges are also recommending defendants come to court alone, although arrangements will be made for anyone with disabilities or special needs.

One more recommendation

When the magisterial district court buildings closed because of the coronavirus, those owing payments were directed to use online options and the mail.

“For the safety of the public and staffs, we are requesting and encouraging any individuals with payments that are due to continue to mail them in or pay online,” Miller added.

Anyone with questions can call their district court office, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456. Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.

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