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South Williamsport, PA
United States

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County Hall Corner: The Court is Now in Session

Having lived in the former Soviet Union for sixteen years provides me with an appreciation for many of the institutions we have in our country. For example, voting in the USSR was mandatory (you would be fined if you did not vote), but voting was essentially meaningless and everyone knew it because all the candidates

Having lived in the former Soviet Union for sixteen years provides me with an appreciation for many of the institutions we have in our country. For example, voting in the USSR was mandatory (you would be fined if you did not vote), but voting was essentially meaningless and everyone knew it because all the candidates on the ballot were members of the Communist Party and would follow the party line. The same was true of the judicial system. If charged with the crime, it would mean the offender was a disrupter of the state and therefore, in essence, guilty until proven innocent. The judge who would try the case would not be guided as much by law as the “unwritten” expectations that the government would be emphasizing at that particular time.

I needed to remind my dear wife of this when she received a jury summons in the mail. She lamented the time it would take away from her schedule, and having been called twice before and never impaneled into a jury, she wondered if it was not just a waste of time. Being the loving husband that I am, I gently reviewed for her the great blessing we have of being born in the United States of America which is governed by the greatest document of government ever devised, the United States Constitution.

In Article Three of that Constitution, as well as the Sixth and Seventh Amendment, it gives any person accused of a crime punishable by incarceration for more than six months the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury. So, just as Americans vote to elect their governing officials, so we have the civic responsibility to participate in the judicial system to ensure that justice is served according to our Constitution.

But along comes a virus that results in shutting down many institutions, including the courts holding jury trials, and the issue of “speedy and public” becomes very difficult to insure. This is what the Lycoming County Courts are now dealing with. With a number of restrictions, the courts have been able to deal with non-jury cases for the most part, but the last jury trial was March 10th, just three days before Governor Wolf’s shutdown order. Since that time, those charged with crimes and who could not afford bail have been awaiting their trials in county prison. A “speedy trial” is considered one within 365 days for those on bail and 180 days for those without bail and who are subsequently incarcerated.

It means that there may be those who are innocent but who are sitting in prison waiting for their day in court. Yes, they could plead out or take their chance before a judge, but these individuals have a constitutional right to a jury trial of their peers. It also is trying on the victims of crimes who must prolong their wait to see justice done.

Given all these concerns, the Lycoming County Courts have endeavored to begin impaneling juries beginning in August for cases to be held in September, and then again in October for cases to be heard in December. Adrianne Stahl, District Court Administrator for the Lycoming Courts, wishes to insure all those summoned that every consideration for their health and safety has been taken.

Everyone summoned has a packet of complete information, but here is the condensed version. Jurors are to call the telephone number on their summons after 5:30 PM, the night before they are scheduled to come. If anyone has any symptoms at all, they should ask to be excused. Better to be safe than sorry. Reporting the next day, jurors are not to bring in phones or any electronic devices, but are asked to bring their own snacks and drinks, as these will not be provided due to health reasons. Also, it is encouraged to bring a book or magazine to pass the time as these also will not be provided. Upon entering, everyone will have their temperature scanned and will be provided with a mask and face shield. This is to provide an added layer of protection. Adrianne also emphasized that the jury room and numbers of jurors will allow for proper social distancing, and there will be continual disinfecting and sanitation at each step of the jury selection process.

Yes, there is some inconvenience by much of this, but it is a small price to pay for the privilege of serving on a jury. This is one of America’s gifts to the world. Some two hundred years ago now, a Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville traveled through this new Republic called the United States, from New England to New Orleans, to the Great Lakes and back to his starting point in Philadelphia. His observations resulted in a book entitled, Democracy in America, which many historians believe is the most insightful book on the United States ever written.

Tocqueville was especially impressed with jury trials which were unknown in his native France or Europe for that matter. He remarks, “Juries, especially civil juries, instill some of the habits of the judicial mind into every citizen, and just those habits are the very best way of preparing people to be free. Juries teach men equity in practice. Each man, when judging his neighbor, thinks that he may be judged himself. Juries teach each individual not to shirk responsibility for his own acts, and without that manly characteristic no political virtue is possible.”

Tocqueville gets to the heart of the matter. We are protecting each other as we answer the constitutional call to serve in judging our neighbor. If we were charged with a crime in which we were innocent, we certainly would want good people willing to objectively hear our case. So serve with pride, Lycoming County. It is good for everyone.

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