On February 10, the president judge of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, David Ashworth, issued an administrative order extending the requirement for masks in all public areas — including courtrooms, elevators and stairwells — in any court facility and at all court department sponsored events, regardless of location. The order does not apply to the individual row offices in the courthouse, which are not under his jurisdiction.
“The latest order is disappointing to say the least,” Ray D’Agostino, one of Lancaster County’s three commissioners, told The Lancaster Patriot. “We should not be having this discussion in a conservative county that cherishes freedom and opposes mandates on people. The county government administration center has been back to normal operations since mid-May of 2020. Our philosophy here at the county is to give people information so that they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families, including following their own medical provider’s recommendations.”
On June 28, 2021, an administrative order from Ashworth lifted the requirement for masks that had been in place since the spring of 2020. Then two months later, in August 2021, Ashworth issued the first of what would be seven consecutive monthly orders extending the mask requirement in the courthouse.
The most recent order, which will be in effect through March 15, requires everyone who enters a court facility to wear a mask, except for children under the age of 2 and those who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons. The order also has a provision for the presiding judge to allow the removal of masks for the purpose of communication.
The order concludes with a statement expressing optimism that mask mitigation efforts may be discontinued in the near future due to the downward trend of COVID-19 metrics in the county. Such a statement did not appear on the previous orders.
“In order for us to continue to function as a court system, a mask requirement was imposed,” Ashworth told The Lancaster Patriot in October. He said that the requirement for everyone to wear masks in public areas of court facilities, wherever people might gather, was based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was implemented because of COVID-19 statistics in Lancaster County and because social distancing cannot always be ensured. “If we have an outbreak in the courthouse, we basically turn out the lights and lock the doors. We can’t afford that. As judges, our sworn duty is to keep the system functional.”
Now, however, the threat of having to shut down any building is far lower, and the mandate has been maintained. Joshua Parsons, another of Lancaster County’s commissioners, finds the renewals concerning.
“Throughout the last two years Commissioner D’Agostino and I have sought to preserve our God-given rights as free American citizens and make Lancaster County a beacon of liberty,” Parsons told The Lancaster Patriot. “It is beyond disappointing to see continued mask mandates by the courts here, especially given that every person who is elected to countywide office in Lancaster County has proclaimed themselves to be a conservative or as having a conservative judicial philosophy.”
The administrative order and its continual renewal have not been without controversy among the public as well. The most notable incident caused by the order occurred in September 2021, when a potential juror was handcuffed and locked in a holding cell for refusing to wear a mask, according to incident reports from the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office. Those incident reports stated that Judge Jeffery Wright gave the man the choice to either put on a mask or be charged with contempt. When the man chose the latter, the judge ordered that he be taken into custody by the deputies. The man was calm and presented no threat throughout the event.
All three reports cited contempt of court as the reason the man was taken into custody, and one deputy’s report specifically stated that the potential juror was in front of Wright for a contempt of court hearing.
According to Ashworth, the deputies misunderstood what was going on, because for someone to be held in contempt of court, he said, an official contempt of court hearing must take place and that hearing never occurred. Furthermore, he explained that the treatment of the man in question, including patting him down and leading him out of the courtroom in handcuffs, was following procedure.
“That’s standard protocol,” Ashworth said. “It was not directed towards this specific gentleman because of any particular reason, other than that’s their protocol and that’s what the sheriff requires of anyone who is removed from the courtroom. This gentleman acted responsibly in terms of his behavior. He was not abusive. He didn’t give the sheriffs a hard time, he didn’t give the judge a hard time — other than initially not following the requirements, but, you know. It wasn’t because of any misbehavior on this gentleman’s part.”
According to the sheriff’s office, court deputies will only handcuff and detain individuals who are aggressive and a threat, who have been sentenced to imprisonment, or who are held in contempt of court.
Because Wright was the judge involved, The Lancaster Patriot reached out to him for an interview. He replied that he was too busy and referred any questions about the administrative order to the president judge, Ashworth. The Lancaster Patriot then asked Wright to clarify whether a contempt of court hearing was held, but he did not respond.
Ashworth said that potential jurors who do not wish to wear a mask or cannot wear one may request the right to defer their jury duty to a later date when the administrative order is no longer in effect.
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