Commentary

Allegheny Co.’s decision to suspend trials didn’t surprise local lawyers | Thursday Morning Coffee

Lawyers say they’re concerned about scheduling and the prioritization of cases, according to a published report

January 13, 2022 7:08 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

It’s a truism that the wheels of justice, when they turn, turn awfully slowly.

Spoiled by the 54-minute pace, not including commercials, of TV legal procedurals, most Americans are surprised to learn that it can take weeks, or even months, before cases come to trial.

That pace was slowed further by the COVID-19 pandemic, as courts shifted to virtual proceedings or suspended trials entirely. And now, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases brought on by the omicron variant, courts from California to Connecticut are once again moving to suspend trials.

“Given the increased rate of transmission of COVID-19 in the Central District of California due to the omicron variant, conducting jury trials would place court personnel, attorneys, parties and prospective jurors at undue risk,” a spokesperson for the U.S. District Court for California’s Central District said in a statement published by the ABA Journal, as it announced it was suspending its proceedings through Jan. 24. “Accordingly, a temporary suspension of jury trials is necessary to protect public health and safety, as well as ensure the continuous performance of essential functions and operations of the court.”

So it wasn’t a total shock to hear that officials in Allegheny County had similarly decided to suspend trials through month’s end.

“I’m not surprised, given the COVID case numbers and the logistical difficulties that the pandemic has caused for the courts,” Kenneth Argentieri, the co-manager of mega-firm Duane Morris’ Pittsburgh office, told The Legal Intelligencer this week.

Through Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported a total of 23.395 cases of COVID-19 statewide. A total of 7,215 people were hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday, with 1,103 in hospital intensive care units. A total of 681 people were using ventilators, according to the agency’s COVID-19 tracking website.

But as is the case with other jurisdictions, the decision raised familiar concerns among local trial attorneys.

“It’s got broad implications,” local attorney John Gismondi told the trade publication. “The first and most immediate are the health implications,” he said, but “looking at things myopically for the legal profession, particularly for litigators, it takes your schedule and it just turns everything upside down.”

The Allegheny County courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

Last September, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced that he was requiring county employees to get vaccinated just as the omicron variant started to emerge, Pittsburgh City Paper reported at the time.

Anthony Jackson, a criminal defense attorney, speculated that the densely populated county’s decision could have been a response to the August 2020 death of an Allegheny County prosecutor.

“Ultimately it’s a protection, and knowing what happened last time just scared everyone,” Jackson told the industry publication.

Allegheny County completed 30 criminal trials last year after trials resumed in April 2021, a spokesperson told The Legal Intelligencer. The county held 28 civil jury trials during its September and November terms, the spokesperson said.

Gismondi, the attorney, told the publication that working through the pandemic was “not optimal,” but manageable.

“I think the lawyers and the judges here would say that the two trial terms in the fall probably went better than anticipated,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Philadelphia had not announced it was suspending trials, the Legal Inteligencer reported.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Pennsylvania’s 2021 redistricting cycle has been convoluted and hard to follow. And now that it has bled into 2022, it’s likely that only further court action will clean up the mess, Stephen Caruso reports.

The Congressional Black Caucus has called for Senate action on the John Lewis Voting Rights ActCapital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa reports.

Six months into the school year, our friends at the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism take a look at how Pittsburgh’s public schools are managing the pandemic.

Are Venmo and PayPal the future of Pa. Turnpike tolling? A Pa. lawmaker wants to make the switch, our partners at City & State Pa. report.

At MLK’s alma mater, President Joe Biden pitched his plan to change the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule, all the better to safeguard voting rights, our sibling site, the Georgia Recorder, reports.

On our Commentary Page this morning: It’s up to Democrats in Pa. and D.C. to defend democracy. So far, that isn’t happeningPaul Koenig, a senior political science and economics major at St. Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia, writes. Ahead of MLK Day, opinion regular Charles D. Allen muses on what the late civil rights leader meant by ‘justice,’ and how his central Pa. hometown is working to make that vision a reality.

(Getty Images/Colorado Newsline)

Elsewhere.
COVID-19 cases aren’t the only reason that Philadelphia-are hospitals are overwhelmed, the Inquirer reports.

A Westmoreland County commissioner has tested positive for COVID-19 for a second time, the Tribune-Review reports.

PennLive has one of the rites of the annual Farm Show: Politicians pressing the flesh.

LancasterOnline runs down the latest in the landmark school funding lawsuit now before Commonwealth Court.

Officials in Lehigh County have launched a new coalition aimed at suicide prevention, the Morning Call reports.

WHYY-FM talks to Philadelphia residents about the scarcity of at-home COVID-19 tests.

The Wilkes-Barre school district could seek a new deal to sell a high school building, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

The Erie Times-News will stop Saturday publication in March and move to all-digital that day, GoErie reports.

In Arizona, Republicans are clamoring for former President Donald Trump’s endorsement ahead of the 2022 mid-terms, Roll Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

 

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What Goes On
The desk is clear. Enjoy the silence.

WolfWatch
Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

Heavy Rotation
The legendary Ronnie Spector, lead vocalist of The Ronettesdied Wednesday at the age of 78. The 1960s combo was the template for every female vocal group to follow them. Here’s the indelible ‘Be My Baby.’


Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Boston’s Brad Marchand notched a hat trick as the Bruins rolled over the hapless Montreal Canadiens 5-1 in an Original Six match-up on Wednesday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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