Rules drafted by Pennsylvania Supreme Court for pandemic, bioattack event

New rules ordered by Pennsylvania's Supreme Court will allow a county judge to cancel trials and jury duty in the wake of a catastrophe such as a bioattack.

The 13 pages of rules also outline the operation of the Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas following a pandemic, natural disaster or other public emergency.

"In the event of a catastrophic occurrence, such as a terrorist attack, major flood or public health emergency, it is important that the courts remain open and able to perform essential functions," Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille told Public Opinion. "These new rules are designed to ensure that the Supreme Court, the president judges of the Common Pleas courts and court administrators can respond quickly and effectively in a crisis."

A state Supreme Court spokesman said that the new rules come as a result of lessons learned from both Hurricane Katrina and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Under the new judicial rules, county court administers in all of Pennsylvania's 60 judicial districts are ordered to establish procedures for continuing operations during an emergency and to review those operations annually.

The rules allow for a president judge to declare a judicial emergency within a judicial district and then to order endangered courtrooms closed, court operations to relocate and to establish a hotline or website to disseminate emergency information.

The Supreme Court can also suspend of modify statewide court procedural or administrative rules upon declaring a judicial emergency. The court may also re-establish the locations of courts, reassign judges or court personnel to other districts and authorize the use of advanced communication in technology court proceedings.