State Supreme Court declares statewide judicial emergency

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
York County Judicial Center

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared a statewide judicial emergency, giving county president judges authorization to make their own decisions about COVID-19 judicial emergencies, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The order is effective through April 14, AOPC spokeswoman Stacey Witalic said on Monday afternoon.

The high court's emergency declaration authorizes county president judges — including York County President Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams — to declare "individual county judicial emergencies ... should they deem it appropriate to protect the health and safety of staff, court users and the community," Witalic wrote in an email.

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The order gives Adams and other county president judges the power to suspend time calculations on court cases and other judicial business, as well as time deadlines, "subject to constitutional restrictions," she wrote.

It also authorizes counties to use "advanced technology" to conduct court proceedings, subject to constitutional restrictions, Witalic said.

County president judges can now "take any action permitted" by the state's Rule of Judicial Administration, including temporarily closing court facilities or instituting restrictions, she said.

"The emergency declaration specifically authorizes president judges to suspend the operation of Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 within a judicial district, for the length of the judicial emergency," Witalic wrote, although that doesn't affect a criminal defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial.

Judicial districts operating under the emergency declaration will arrange for essential services to continue, including arraignments and protection from abuse proceedings, she said.

York County's courts: York County's court offices remain open despite concerns about COVID-19, Adams said at a news conference Monday morning.

He said he had submitted a request to Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor that an emergency judicial order be put in place for York County's judicial center, common pleas court and magisterial district judge offices.

Adams said York County court proceedings will make use of the phone and two-way video conferencing where appropriate.

Such two-way video conferencing is something the county already has the ability to do and regularly does at the central booking unit.

Adams said he also requested that the state Supreme Court suspend Rule 600.

In Pennsylvania, Rule 600, known as the "speedy trial rule," guarantees criminal defendants the right to a trial within a year after being charged, not including continuances or delays requested by the defense. It also guarantees that if a case hasn't made its way to trial within 180 days, not including defense delays, a defendant can be released on nominal bail, meaning $1.

He explained that he doesn't automatically have the authority to close court facilities because of coronavirus fears, which is why the state's highest court had to issue the declaration to give him that authority.

Open courts 'vital': Adams said that at this point he is not closing down York County's courts.

York County President Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams

"It is vital that the courts remain open to serve the public," he said. "However, in keeping with the recommendations made by health officials, we will be slowing down our operations to address only essential matters."

Those "essential matters" include requests for protection from abuse orders, juvenile matters and criminal matters, he said.

Adams said he planned to meet with York County's other judges and court administration at noon Monday "to determine the level of priority to be given to legal matters that ultimately must be addressed by the court."

He also said York County will try to limit hearings to a dozen participants in each courtroom.

Although all court offices in York County remain open, the schedules of employees might be adjusted, according to Adams.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said county officials' No. 1 goal is to keep people safe during the coronavirus outbreak.

He said police, firefighters, first responders, prosecutors and others will keep working daily without interruption.

"No matter what happens around us, we will continue to do our job," Sunday said.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.