Essential Work: Keeping the Wheels of Justice Moving

August 21, 2020

Keeping the wheels of justice moving is essential work. So is protecting the personal health and safety of all those working, using, and moving through courthouses. Last week, we had a starkly tragic reminder that prosecutors are not immune to the virus. On August 11, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Russ Broman lost his battle with Covid-19. His family believes he contracted the virus in the courthouse. Our hearts go out to his family and his colleagues. He will be remembered for many things, but most will recount first his dedication to public service and the people of Allegheny County he served.

According to all of the current guidance, mitigation efforts work, including the use of masks, social distraining and working remotely. Since the pandemic first hit, judges and district attorneys have worked together to address both the health concerns and legal issues related to those mitigation efforts in various ways that reflect their local community and needs. Cases continued to be investigated and prosecuted. Bail hearings, probation parole violations, bench warrant and extradition hearings and detention and placement review hearings for juveniles and other essential court functions forged on, often by phone, Zoom or other technology.

As the state navigates the best way to safely balance reopening with public health, we have heard from DAs representing counties of all different sizes that they are working with president judges, defense attorneys, law enforcement, criminal justice system stakeholders and victims of crime to keep the lines of communication open and provide creative and safe solutions to keep the wheels of justice moving.

In Pennsylvania, every county has the right and authority, absent a Supreme Court order, to approach their effort in the way they see best. Some county court systems remain closed while others have begun the careful process of bringing the court system more fully online again, including jury trials in some jurisdictions. 

Some ways DAs have told us they are proceeding with court activities include: 

  1. using technology, such as video conferencing, for court appearances;
  2. using large auditoriums and fairgrounds for jury selection;
  3. reconfiguring courtrooms to accommodate social distancing;
  4. utilizing hotel banquet facilities for courtrooms;
  5. replacing face masks with clear face shields and plexiglass for testimony; and 
  6. continuing work-from-home options for prosecutors and staff and/or social distancing to safeguard court staff and the public.

At the same time, we are acutely aware that prosecutors are working on the pandemic’s frontlines. Staff and those using and moving through our courthouses are not immune and all deserve to have their safety come first.

As an Association, we recognize that the collective experience will help inform the future. Over the last six months, we have provided opportunities for prosecutors to share their experiences and best practices with one another and will continue to do so. Additionally, Lackawanna County District Attorney Mark Powell represents prosecutors on the newly created Joint Task Force on the Continuity of Delivery of Legal Services. This task force, formed by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, will develop recommendations to update processes and technology to enable the legal system to continue to operate under emergencies similar to the Covid-19 pandemic.

No one expected or could have planned for the global pandemic that is upon us. In the end, however, society as a whole will be judged by how we react. 

Russ Broman was not the only prosecutor to contract the Covid-19 virus. Others in his office and other district attorney offices in Pennsylvania have been infected. Prosecutors will continue to work within their local systems to care for and protect every individual that enters a courthouse whether it be a defendant, a juror or an employee of their own office. 

Lindsay VaughanLindsay Vaughan is executive director for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. She can be reached at lvaughan@pdaa.org.