Somerset judge reinstating pre-COVID criminal trial procedures

Jan. 25—SOMERSET, Pa. — Somerset County is reverting to pre-pandemic procedures for scheduling criminal trials, abandoning "by-the-seat-of-our-pants" methods that have slowed the system, the county's president judge said.

"Ad hoc" methods necessary during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic "may be acceptable in an emergency, but it's no way to run a court system for the long term," President Judge D. Gregory Geary wrote.

Since a Pennsylvania Supreme Court emergency order was issued in 2020, defendants were excused in many cases from appearing for Somerset County's Call of the List dates, which occur five times a year. Their defense attorneys have been permitted to appear by themselves on the behalf of accused individuals.

But those safety-minded efforts also limited interaction, trading in-person communication among attorneys, their clients and the courts for video conferencing and mailings.

Beginning in April, that will change, Geary said.

"The pandemic-driven practices of corresponding with incarcerated defendants by mail and utilizing video-conferencing for court appearances were never very effective to begin with, and have become less so the further removed from the pandemic we become," Geary wrote in his two-page memorandum.

He cited the flow of important legal documents — such as waiver forms and guilty-plea questionnaires — as "substantially" slowing the process due to prison procedures, making moving cases forward efficiently a challenging task.

"I'm convinced at this point that the only way to effectively move incarcerated defendants' cases through the system is to bring them to Somerset County where they can meet with their attorneys, execute their paperwork and appear before the court in person," Geary said.

Geary's memorandum was issued to fellow judges, the Somerset County commissioners, the sheriff's office and others working in the court system.

The decision was also sent to county bar association attorneys whose duties often require them to spent time in the courthouse.

Somerset County Clerk of Courts Rose Svonavec welcomed the decision.

Her office handles the ongoing caseload of hundreds of criminal dockets that move through the system each year.

She said the move back to more in-person interaction will simplify the process of bringing cases to trial.

"Cases are backlogged," she said. "And I think this will help."

Somerset County Acting Sheriff Dustin Weir said the shift back to pre-pandemic procedures shouldn't be an issue for his staff — despite their recent manpower shortage.

He said he's hopeful one vacancy will be filled in the coming days and, separately, a current part-time deputy will be taking another full-time job in his office.

Call of the List planning will need to be done several weeks in advance, Weir said. Deputies will be sent to other prisons to pick up inmates and bring them to Somerset County Jail days — and possibly even a few weeks — beforehand to ensure the everyone on the list is next door when the day of the criminal procedure arrives.

"That way, we can bring everybody in at once — from the same place," Weir said, noting that is a time-tested process. "We just have to plan for it."

Somerset County eased other COVID-19 requirements in 2021, enabling trials to resume late that year.

Cambria County's courts shifted back to pre-pandemic procedures more than a year ago, following a Supreme Court order lifting the statewide emergency in 2021, an order by President Judge Norman Krumenacker shows. Defendants continue attending Call of the List proceedings in-person, court administrator staff said.

Geary's memorandum requires a change to Somerset County's local rules of judicial administration.

The changes must be published — in this case in the weekly government gazette, the Pennsylvania Bulletin. Geary said a copy of the changes are also being posted on the county's website and forwarded to the administrative office of Pennsylvania Courts.

The Bulletin published the rule change in its Jan. 14 edition, making the change effective 30 days later.

The changes will be in effect for Somerset County's next Call of the List in April, Geary said.