CLEARFIELD – The last year has seen all of us making changes to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic. Some of these changes may become a more permanent part of the way court is handled in Clearfield County.
Court Administrator F. Cortez “Chip” Bell III, in an interview, noted that court in Clearfield County has not been as restrained as other counties such as Centre that has not had a trial since last year.
They continue to use a restricted list with the judges rotating events. Bell said Centre County is just now scheduling their first jury selection since early last year.
Court activities in Clearfield County were only really restricted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for a few months starting in March, he explained. After that, they found ways to conduct hearings, trials and other proceedings within the COVID restrictions.
“We just kept truckin’,” he said.
For example, jury selection was moved from the courthouse to various buildings at the Clearfield Driving Park, also known as the county fairgrounds, where everyone could be socially distant.
“The jurors are comfortable with it and it has worked wonderfully well there.”
Potential jurors have assigned seats and if they are called up front to the panel and then dismissed, the chairs are sanitized before anyone else can sit there.
Recently they had 140 people for jury selection and the room was big enough for everyone to be eight feet apart.
“A lot of them (potential jurors) are older people, and they are concerned about being safe.”
The Clearfield County Fair and Park Board have been “tremendous with letting us use their buildings.”
Keeping jurors six feet apart during a trial and deliberations in a small jury room was another challenge.
Currently trials are held with the jurors sitting in another part of the courtroom where they can be socially distant. Their deliberations are done in the courtroom after everyone else has left the room.
“We may continue to do that.”
The court was also able to obtain equipment to allow hearings by Zoom including televisions and four laptop computers because of COVID-19 funds.
However, due to technical issues, personnel in the court administrator’s office have to monitor the sessions, which can be difficult as they try to continue with their regular duties.
Now they are backing off and trying to conduct more hearings in person.
“Technology is great and it pushed us to use it more, but it has limitations.”
Among those are ways to handle exhibits and interviewing children for custody hearings while not knowing who else may be in the room with them.
“In person (hearings) are always best.”
Last year there was a back log because they were not able to file charges for a while but now things are pretty well caught up, Bell said.
There was also a delay with trials in some major trials that needed to be held for multiple days including four murder cases but several of these have already been scheduled or resolved with a plea agreement.
These same cases are taking up most of the time in the court calendar in 2021 leaving little time to for other hearings.
“We have to squeeze them in,” Bell said.
Having space for preliminary hearings, which were formerly held at the jail would have been a problem, regardless of the pandemic.
“We’ve overgrown the jail,” he said. “The hearing rooms are too compact.”
At first, they continued to schedule hearings at the jail, with those not incarcerated waiting in their cars until their case was called, but after a few inmates tested positive, the cases were moved to either the courthouse with jail inmates having their hearings via Zoom or to District Magistrate Mike Morris’s office for everyone else.
Currently, the county is working on a lease with the Tri-County Church on Mill Road (the former Florian Banquet Hall) for preliminary hearings, but Bell said they are looking for a more permanent solution: a building which could house a district magistrate office plus two courtrooms for hearings with a room big enough to hold a trial.
Because of how things have changed due to the pandemic, Bell thinks they may continue to require masks and have social distancing even after the restrictions are lifted.
He referred to the last year as “a learning experience.”