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COVID-19 Forces Some Allegheny Court Office Closures, But Local Lawyers Say It’s Not Enough

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90.5 WESA
Six Allegheny County court staffers and two attorneys who work at the Allegheny County Courthouse tested positive for COVID-19 between June 25 and July 5, according to the court administration.

Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have prompted the closure of some judicial facilities in Allegheny County. The county’s court administration said Monday that four probation offices have been closed, along with a magisterial district court in Verona, Pa. But local defense attorneys say they have concerns about a lack of communication from court officials about the threat.

The closures come after two attorneys and two court employees who work in the Allegheny County Courthouse were diagnosed with COVID-19, according to court administrator Chris Connors. He said that since last week, four additional court staff members, across four locations, have tested positive for the virus. Those employees worked at the Pittsburgh City-County Building, PreTrial Services, the county’s family court, and a magisterial district court, Connors said.

Late Monday afternoon, the office of District Attorney Stephen Zappala reported that three staffers, two of which were included in the count provided by Connors, had tested positive. 90.5 WESA has learned that all three cases involve attorneys in the prosecutor's office.

"The business of dealing with that criminal activity in our office requires contact with the public and that involves an inherent risk," the office's statement said. "Unfortunately, three of our members have contracted the virus and as we have consistently done since the start of this pandemic, we will review the safety measures that have been implemented to determine where improvements need to be made."

And at a time when coronavirus infections are surging in Allegheny County, local lawyers worry that more infections will soon emerge, and they fault court officials for being reluctant to disclose details about the extent to which the coronavirus has spread.

In a Facebook post Sunday, attorney Patrick Nightingale said, “We, the criminal defense bar, have heard absolutely nothing” from court administrators, despite being “perfect potential carriers [of the virus] as we move from courtroom to courtroom.”

In an interview, Nightingale noted that he and other attorneys have learned about possible infections from colleagues on Facebook or in informal conversations, not from court administrators. “Everything that we have learned has come from word-of-mouth or from people who are in the courthouse,” he said. “We’re all trying to figure out who was where, when were they, could they have been exposed? Should we be self-quarantining? Should we be getting our own tests?”

Court officials said in a statement Monday that the Allegheny County Health Department tracks down possible cases through contact tracing. The statement added that, because “the court is in the unique position of requiring the public to appear in our courtrooms,” it uses stricter social distancing guidelines than the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention advises, to determine when to instruct employees to stay home.

“The problem is that there’s a lack of transparency or clarity," countered another defense attorney, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The attorney told 90.5 WESA that he went into isolation late last week, after being informed that he might have been exposed to the virus in a courtroom. The lawyer has developed a cough and fever but is still waiting on test results. He said court officials did not notify him about his potential exposure, but that he had been contacted by another lawyer in his office.

Still, the attorney said from self-quarantine, "No one knows how many people are sick. No one knows what the numbers are. We should at least have a number count as to how many people [have been exposed to the virus].”

Until recently, much of the debate over COVID-19 in the criminal justice system focused on prisoners at the Allegheny County Jail. To date, 28 inmates have tested positive for the virus, though that number hasn't changed since early May. As of July 6, 25 test results were still pending: A county official said that the tests were driven not by concerns over infection but rather a policy requiring inmates to be tested before they are transferred to state prison facilities.

Still, lawyers face their own risks. Attorneys regularly must lean within inches of their clients’ faces to have confidential conversations, or go into crowded hallways to avoid being overheard. And they often travel throughout the region for their work, Nightingale noted.

“We don’t just work in the Allegheny County Courthouse. We bounce from room to room in the courthouse. We go to [magisterial] district justices’ offices throughout Allegheny County,” he said. “The majority of [criminal defense lawyers] have multi-county practices, where we travel to magistrates' offices and to Courts of Common Pleas literally throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Giuseppe Roselli, a criminal defense lawyer, remembered discovering that he had been in one courtroom where a Monroeville police officer had been infected by the coronavirus. “I know that because my case was continued because he was quarantining,” Roselli said. He said court administrators never reached out to him, however. Rather, “the following day or so, it’s announced in the papers that multiple officers from that jurisdiction tested positive.”

“There’s a level of frustration I have with [the Allegheny County court system’s response] that borders on anger,” Roselli said. “I understand we’re working in very difficult times, but you can’t send me into a courtroom where you know there’s been an outbreak and not tell me so I can make the proper adjustments to my lifestyle and the people that I’m interacting with in my personal family.”

Allegheny County President Judge Kim Clark ordered the closure of the Verona magistrate court Monday “due to a positive COVID-19 test related to that office,” Connors, the court administrator, said in an email. The office, where magisterial district judge Anthony DeLuca presides, will remain closed through next Friday.

Positive test results did not, however, prompt the county’s adult probation division to suspend operations at its four community resource centers, in McKeesport, and Pittsburgh’s Arlington, East Liberty, and Perry South neighborhoods.

The closures were instead “a proactive action taken as a precaution because of the rising amount of cases in the County," Connors wrote. “The probation officers assigned to those centers are able to work from home."

Clark had already mandated mask wearing and limited occupancy within court facilities. And she has ordered that some proceedings be conducted remotely.

But criminal defense lawyer Lisa Middleman said the current approach is uneven at best. “There’s no consistency. You hear from one courtroom that they’re going to be operating fully remotely. But you have a case in another courtroom where you don’t know what those folks are doing.” As a result, Middleman said, attorneys struggle to take proper precautions against the virus.

“It’s a dilemma,” she said. “Do I worry about my own personal safety? Or do I adhere to the order of the court, which says that you are supposed to appear at a certain time?”

* This story was updated at 4:42 p.m. on Monday, June 6, 2020 to add an announcement by the District Attorney's office that three of its staff had tested positive for COVID-19.