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Allegheny County Judge Sued For Allegedly Blocking Virtual Access To Court Proceedings

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90.5 WESA
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Members of the public can now use an online portal to request permission to view criminal court proceedings in Allegheny County remotely, but a lawsuit accuses trial judge Anthony Mariani of denying all requests submitted through the system.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani was sued in federal court Tuesday for allegedly barring volunteer court observers from virtually attending hearings in his courtroom.

The Abolitionist Law Center brought the suit, which stated that Mariani is the only judge in the county’s court system to stop the public from attending court remotely amid the coronavirus pandemic. While Mariani has welcomed the court observers to attend in person, the lawsuit contends that due to the health threat posed by the virus, the public's First Amendment rights are being violated if observers can't have online access to proceedings.

“Under the Constitution, all members of the public and the press have a right to observe their courts and court officials in action, getting to see exactly what's happening inside their courtrooms,” said Nicolas Riley, an attorney for the plaintiffs and senior counsel at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center.

ALC’s Court Watch program has sought to serve that watchdog function since forming in January 2020. The group regularly monitors local court proceedings and shares its observations through social media, articles, and reports, the lawsuit said.

Such monitoring is "the only way for members of the press and the public to know what's happening in the criminal justice system in order to scrutinize it, criticize it, praise it, and hold the actors that participate in that system accountable,” Riley said.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania are also representing the plaintiffs.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs note that an employee who primarily worked in Mariani’s courtroom tested positive for COVID-19 in February. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in October that Mariani’s courtroom had to shut down for two weeks after someone there was diagnosed with the virus. And last summer, the virus prompted several judicial facilities to close.

ALC said that, since January, volunteers with its Court Watch program have requested remote access to more than 100 hearings in Mariani’s courtroom. The judge rejected all of those requests, the lawsuit said.

In early February, an ALC volunteer emailed Mariani’s chambers to explain that some observers could not appear in person because they have underlying health conditions that increase their risk of experiencing complications due to COVID-19. In addition, the email said, court rules prohibit people who might have recently been exposed to the virus or had recently experienced symptoms of the disease from entering the courthouse.

Mariani never replied, the lawsuit said, even though ALC followed up one week later.

While the judge and his staff continue to work on site, the suit noted that “the vast majority of participants,” including clients and their attorneys, have been able to appear virtually. Riley, the attorney representing ALC, said the public is entitled to the same accommodation because “it's the only way for the public to engage in meaningful discourse about the legal system.”

With assistance from the ACLU Pennsylvania and Riley’s institute at Georgetown, ALC played a key role in expanding remote access to Allegheny County courts. Starting in May, the groups sent letters to court leadership, asking for greater virtual access to hearings. And earlier this year, Riley said, the court launched an online portal where members of the public can request a Microsoft Teams link to view criminal court proceedings remotely. (Requests must be submitted by 9 a.m. at least one business day before a hearing.)

“Early in the pandemic,” Riley said, “courts were understandably struggling to figure out the best ways to ensure public access … But I think what we've seen is that across the country, courts have been willing and able to make their proceedings remotely accessible to members of the public.”

“At this stage,” he added, “it's actually pretty unusual for a court to refuse any remote access to the public.”

Tuesday’s suit asks a federal judge to order Mariani to make his hearings virtually accessible to the public and to cover attorneys’ fees and costs.

A staff member in Mariani's chambers declined to comment Tuesday morning.