Lower COVID-19 Infection Rate Will Allow Some Courts To Open Soon – Others Have Weeks To Go
On April 28, 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its newest order concerning the state of the Commonwealth’s judicial system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The order, divided into ten separate sections, seems to recognize that the business of the courts may be able to resume in the near future in some parts of the Commonwealth, while others still have weeks to go before the threat of COVID-19 infection begins to decrease.
Judicial Emergency Extended until June 1
The Court extended the already ongoing judicial emergency until June 1, 2020. However, in a reversal of its policies over the last month, the Court ordered that courts throughout the Commonwealth should be presumed OPEN beginning on Monday, May 4, 2020. Despite this reversal, the Court’s mandate that in-person access and proceedings remain strictly limited, and certain “critical functions” should remain the focus of the courts, continue through June 1. These “critical functions,” known in prior orders as “essential functions,” have not changed. Moreover, the Court’s order continues to give broad discretion to the president judges of each judicial district and intermediate courts to determine how best to operate their individual courts.
Court Filing Time Limitations and Deadlines
The Court’s order has the potential for confusion, however, because despite the general judicial emergency lasting until June 1, the previously announced suspension of time calculations and deadlines for litigation filings will only last until May 8, unless an individual judicial district imposes a different timeline. For example, the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County already has an extension order in place until May 29. Those orders already in place (like Washington County) or any other order issued by an individual judicial district imposing other deadlines have the explicit authority to remain in place.
Put differently, unless a President Judge imposes his or her own order for that judicial district, the Supreme Court’s new directive that the suspension of counting time will end on May 8, 2020, will be the default. Under that default, any pleading or filing that was due between March 19 and May 8, 2020, will be deemed timely filed if filed by the close of business on May 11, 2020.
Other time limitation changes include:
- The statewide stay on dispossession of residences will cease on May 11, 2020;
- Rule 600 exclusions of time in criminal cases shall continue through June 1, 2020; and
- Jury trials in both criminal and civil matters remain suspended generally and indefinitely, while court leaders statewide and locally evaluate options for their resumption.
Use of Technology in Court Proceedings
Despite beginning the process to reopen the courts Commonwealth-wide, the Justices’ concern for the health, safety, and welfare of litigants, attorneys, judges, and court staff remains paramount. Accordingly, President Judges remain empowered to restrict access to all court facilities as necessary and excuse the physical presence of parties from proceedings.
Courts are further encouraged to decide as many matters as possible without in-person proceedings, including disposition on briefs or conducting court hearings and conferences through communication technologies. Further, and for the first time in any of its orders, the Supreme Court is encouraging attorneys to conduct depositions through electronic means, such as video or telephone conferencing. The Court stated, “no proceeding should be delayed solely on account of the present public health crisis that could reasonably be conducted using available advanced communication technologies in a manner that is consistent with constitutional requirements.”
Guidance to Attorneys
The Court further issued “guidance to legal professionals” as the courts begin to reopen during the continuing public health crisis. The Court felt it necessary to remind attorneys that the current public health emergency “can in no way be used to secure a strategic advantage in litigation, including by means of dilatory conduct.” Citing several rules of professional conduct, the Court clearly intimated that lawyers may be disciplined for such actions.
The Court also gave its imprimatur to the Governor’s April 28th guidance concerning the operation of law offices, noting that while law offices are to remain generally closed, lawyers may utilize their offices and hold in-person client meetings to meet “needs that are critical to the client’s health or safety, including, but not limited to, matters of healthcare, incompetence, incapacitation, end-of-life decision making, government benefits necessary to sustain life and access healthcare and income, or legal functions necessary for the operation of government at all levels.” These meetings must occur subject to all orders and guidance of the Department of Health and CDC.
Pennsylvania’s courts, like the entire Commonwealth, are on the cusp of reopening. The Supreme Court should be given credit for keeping the health, safety, and welfare of those involved in the judicial system at the forefront while preparing those same persons for expanding the administration of justice during these unprecedented times. However, as noted, the Court’s order is bound to cause some confusion among litigants regarding the appropriate timing of filings, especially as individual counties continue to implement rules most appropriate for those counties.
Since the beginning of this crisis, the attorneys of The Lynch Law Group have monitored this ever-changing paradigm and advised our clients at each step. We will continue to advise our clients on the best strategies to maneuver through these changing times. Please contact with your questions or concerns.