The extraordinarily snowy and icy winter has been inconvenient for just about everyone in Pennsylvania, shutting down businesses across the state on numerous occasions, but the weather has created a particularly daunting logistical nightmare for courts as they attempt to reschedule full days’ worth of postponed proceedings, according to several president judges.
“It’s a pain, it’s a problem. I hope we’ve seen the last of it,” said Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Joseph C. Madenspacher.
Madenspacher said his court has been forced to close on four separate occasions due to inclement weather this winter, in addition to having to delay openings on several other days.
What’s made this winter particularly difficult, Madenspacher said, is the fact that the snow and ice storms have been staggered over the course of several weeks, continually thwarting the court’s efforts to regroup.
“This has been the worst winter I can ever remember,” Madenspacher, who has been on the Lancaster County bench since 1999, said. “We’ve had blizzards that would knock things out for two or three straight days, but we only seemed to get one of those a year.”
According to Madenspacher, having to postpone proceedings due to weather is not simply a matter of pushing everything back a few weeks, as attorneys’ often-packed calendars allow little leeway for rescheduling.
That makes preparing for weather-related closings nearly impossible, Madenspacher said.
“You can’t think of a way to come up with a truly good contingency plan,” he said.
When it must be done, however, Madenspacher said his court gives the highest priority to postponed hearings, working with the parties involved to get them rescheduled as soon as possible.
According to Madenspacher, this can be particularly difficult in matters where the attorneys spend the bulk of their time in court, such as in family law cases.
Certain proceedings, such as pretrial conferences and status conferences, which the court runs on a list every Monday, are somewhat easier to manage, Madenspacher said.
“We reschedule them for two weeks out and the entire list stays intact,” Madenspacher said, but he added that other list events, such as guilty pleas, cannot be moved so easily.
“It’s just a problem,” Madenspacher said, “which is why we try, whenever possible, to do a delay and kick everything backwards during the day. That way, we can usually get everything finished.”
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper agreed, calling the rescheduling process “a headache” and saying court closures “wreak havoc” on trials that are already underway.
“Particularly in the criminal courts, if it interrupts trials in progress, it inconveniences jurors hoping to get done with a particular case” and often requires the complicated task of rescheduling witness and expert witness testimony, Woods-Skipper said.
“Fortunately, we have individuals that are very skilled at trying to make the system work and we massage it as best we can,” Woods-Skipper said. “All matters are rescheduled and we send service to defendants’ last-known addresses. A lot of times the lawyers will get service to the defendants. We try to work with the lawyers in making sure cases can be completed. It’s a juggling act.”
The Philadelphia trial courts have endured three closures so far this year, according to Woods-Skipper.
“We will have a lot of catching up to do,” she said.
Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said his office has not attempted to tally the costs associated with the court closings across the state, in part because president judges are given wide latitude to find ways to make up the work using the resources they have at their disposal.
“We haven’t really totaled anything here at the statewide office in the way of lost days, hours or costs,” Heinz said. “First, because it’s difficult to quantify and, second, because, rightly so, it’s really kind of a local situation.”
Madenspacher, for example, said his court staff have so far been able to make up the work they missed without having to put in overtime.
Still, Madenspacher acknowledged that any time the weather keeps court employees from getting to work, it’s costly in ways that are hard to put a price tag on.
“You have the lost productivity,” Madenspacher said. “All of the employees are paid and they haven’t done any work. Are there any additional costs over and above that? They’re always difficult to quantify.”
While trial courts have had considerable difficulty coping with the erratic weather this winter, the situation has been slightly less problematic at the appellate court level, even for its busiest bench, the Superior Court.
Superior Court President Judge Susan Peikes Gantman said the court was forced to close its Philadelphia and Harrisburg filing offices twice so far this year, on Feb. 13 and 14.
For filing deadline purposes, Gantman said, the court treats snow days the same as it would a weekend day or a holiday, following the Rules of Appellate Procedure requirement that when the last day of a filing period falls on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday, the period extends to the end of the next business day.
“People do not lose their appeal period because of our court closure,” Gantman said.
The court’s opinion output also has been unaffected by the closures, according to Gantman.
“You could issue things remotely, thank heavens,” Gantman said.
Earlier in February, however, the court encountered a tougher situation when the weather turned nasty on a day when oral arguments were scheduled in Philadelphia.
According to Gantman, the court proceeded with the hearings, but several attorneys were unable to make it to the city.
In those instances, according to Gantman, the parties were permitted to submit their arguments on briefs.
While perhaps not ideal, Gantman said the court always applies a “very detailed analysis” to the cases that come before it, regardless of whether they’re argued or submitted on briefs.
Although the inclement weather has inarguably thrown several wrenches in the gears of Pennsylvania courts this year, Heinz said it has been helpful in underscoring the importance of the courts’ mandated continuity of operations plans.
The Supreme Court adopted Rule of Judicial Administration 1951 in 2009, requiring all courts to develop contingency plans designed to either continue operations or quickly resume operations in the case of an emergency.
Heinz added that the snow and ice have also given the AOPC ample opportunity to test out its new employee notification system.
“We were able to reach out to several hundred court employees to notify them of cancellations or closings,” Heinz said. “We’ve utilized it at least five times within a one-month period between January and February.”