Magistrates playing catch-up following months-long legal backlogs
By Jamie Wiggan
Judges at all levels of the legal system are playing catch-up with caseloads following months of delays and restrictions brought on by the coronavirus crisis.
As the gatekeepers of the justice system, local magistrates in particular have accrued heavy backlogs with cases involving traffic and coding violations that were given low-priority while courts operated at reduced capacity.
“We had about three or four months of hearings that were pushed back,” said Jack Kobistek, a magistrate for Crafton and several surrounding communities. “Traffic hearings were all
pushed back, [as were] some civil…we were always at least handling criminal along the way.”
Kobistek said he and other magistrates are currently working around the clock to get caught
up now that all court-related restrictions are lifted.
Against this backdrop, Kobistek said a nation-wide eviction moratorium that expired July 31 brought a new concerns for “an influx of landlord-tenant cases down the pipeline.”
“Right now we’re all on pins and needles,” he said.
Following the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an emergency declaration allowing courts across the state to conduct virtual hearings and postpone certain types of cases.
During subsequent months, state and local courts issued several further orders. These, at various times, delayed certain types of cases indefinitely, while slowing down the flow of others, as limited resources were put toward ensuring criminal cases moved at regular pace.
Final restrictions were lifted by a July 6 Supreme Court order requiring all courts resume pre-pandemic proceedings, staggering cases and hearings as necessary while catching up.
Kobistek said in order to respect a suspect’s right to due process, criminal arraignment hearings were always carried out promptly even during heightened periods of the shutdown.
Virtual hearings were encouraged when all parties agreed, but where any objected hearings took place in-person, with social distancing measures.
With the postponements primarily affecting less serious breaches of law, municipalities have borne a large share of the disruption brought on by the pandemic.
Municipalities enforce local ordinances that hold property owners to certain standards and also enforce local parking and traffic regulations.
These statutes encourage property owners to maintain their buildings and lots to acceptable public standards, while parking restrictions help prevent over-parking and related safety issues. But collecting fines on violations in both cases also accounts for an important share of revenue for many boroughs and townships.
Jack Muhr, McKees Rocks mayor, said the borough currently is waiting for hearings to be scheduled for about 30 outstanding cases. In one case, Muhr said he’s still awaiting a date in court on violations dating back to 2018.
“They get cancelled and postponed, there’s nothing the court system can do,” Muhr said.
“It’s not the magistrate’s fault…it’s affecting everybody that goes through the court system.”
Muhr said he has started to see a slow uptick in movement during recent weeks.
“Things are moving forward a little bit,” he said. “But we still have a lot of problems.”
Kobistek said barring any new setbacks or delays, he hopes his court will be fully caught up by early fall.
“I’m starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.