On June 16, 2020, Baltimore City Circuit Court Administrative Judge Audrey Carrión conducted a virtual town hall meeting to update the Bar on the status of current operations now that the Court has entered Phase II of the Maryland Judiciary’s progressive resumption of operations. The judge also described what the Court expects to happen as it moves through each of the successive phases of the statewide plan outlined in the Court of Appeals’ most recent administrative order. Judge Carrión noted that is the Court’s “hope and expectation” that it will be able to proceed through these phases on schedule, but much will depend on the course of the pandemic and advice received from state and local government and public health officials in the future.
Phase II (June 5 through July 19). Both courthouses are still largely closed to the public as its limited staff acclimates to new safety precautions and prepares to welcome the public back in the months ahead. The staff works staggered schedules on a rotating basis, and much of its work is still being done remotely. The judge urged patience as Baltimore City, one of three remaining non-MDEC juridictions, continues to address challenges in conducting court business that differ from jurisdictions with electronic document processing capabilities.
As social distancing requirements are expected to be in place well into the future, cautionary signage and hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed throughout the buildings. Plexiglass partitions have been installed in public areas, and at witness stands, clerk stations, and the bench in every courtroom. Courtrooms have been evaluated to determine the number of people that can be safely accommodated in the area at one time, and trial tables will be reconfigured to facilitate distancing.
Judge Carrión’s May 26 administrative order regarding health screening prior to entry into both courthouses has been implemented for staff during Phase II, and will be applied equally to all who enter the buildings going forward. The order includes a series of screening questions and requires a temperature check before admission. Instructions on what to do if entry is denied are set forth in the order, which will be available at all entryways. The Court is investigating technology, including mobile apps, that will allow for online pre-screening, subject to on-site temperature checks, to speed up the process once the public begins to return in numbers. In any event, the May 26 health screening protocol is expected to stay in place during all phases of the reopening plan.
The Court is handling all Phase II matters specified in the Court of Appeals’ administrative order, primarily by video and teleconferencing. Skype for Business remains the platform of choice, although the Judiciary recently approved the use of Zoom for Government, which may be used in the future. While there has been some expansion in the types of matters being heard remotely, in-person hearings have thus far been limited to those involving domestic violence protective orders.
As to criminal matters, the judge advised her listeners that the grand jury reconvened on June 15. Two courtrooms have been equipped to handle violations of probation for incarcerated defendants, and transcripts of district court bail proceedings are being made available electronically to all parties to facilitate video hearings to review district court bail determinations. The Court has also begun to process and rule on expungement petitions, although those that require a hearing will not be scheduled until the Court enters Phase III of the reopening plan.
Turning to civil matters, Judge Carrión reminded everyone of the existing administrative order requiring electronic filing of all papers related to civil/non-family discovery disputes. Once the motions and responses have been received by the Court, they are sent to a judge for a ruling or a remote hearing, if necessary. As the Clerk’s office is still closed to the public, all other papers are to be filed by mail or through the dropboxes. Litigants should continue to mark emergencies as such so that the Clerk’s office knows to bring it promptly to the attention of the appropriate judge. Papers received by the Court are still subject to a 24-hour quarantine.
All civil cases scheduled for trial through October 2, 2020, and all pretrial conferences associated with those cases, have been postponed and will soon be assigned new dates for 2021, with revised scheduling orders. There are “hundreds” of cases that fall into this category. The judge asked that attorneys in these cases wait until a notice is received before filing motions to revise the schedule set by the Court. She added that the judges understand that there will be conflicts, and that they will show some flexibility in rescheduling at the appropriate time.
Remote pretrial and settlement conferences are being scheduled in select cases, and a remote daily postponement court will open shortly. The Court has already begun contacting counsel to determine whether their cases have been resolved or whether the parties might be willing to have the case tried without a jury. Attorneys with trial dates for civil/non-family that can proceed without a jury are encouraged to contact the assignment office (410-333-3755) to see if their trial date might be preserved. The Court has already scheduled some remote bench trials, and might be open to scheduling others in appropriate cases.
The Court has continued to hear uncontested divorces and status conferences remotely in family law cases in Phase II. Cases that are not resolved will get new trial dates in subsequent phases.
Phase III (July 20 through August 30). Phase III should see some additional staff returning to the courthouses, and a gradual reopening to the public. While most matters are expected to be handled remotely, there may be a modest increase in the types of matters that will be heard in-person, possibly to include some contested family matters and expungement hearings.
Phase IV (August 31 through October 4). The current plan is to have close to full staffing when the Court enters Phase IV, and to reopen to members of the public who have scheduled business with the Court. Again, the types of matters to be heard should expand in accordance with the Court of Appeals’ order, and the number of in-person proceedings should increase. Live bench trials in limited numbers are also expected to resume in Phase IV, perhaps with priority given to cases that have a small number of witnesses while everyone gets used to operating in the new environment before the Court begins to accommodate larger crowds. Docket sizes will be limited to minimize the number of people in the buildings, and the Court will continue to handle as much as it can by video and teleconference through Phase IV, and into Phase V.
Phase V (October 5). Assuming “all goes well to this point,” the Court will have its entire staff on-site as it enters Phase V, and may slowly be able to start conducting jury trials as it resumes full operations. The Court will still employ remote platforms whenever possible, and all dockets will remain limited in size and staggered to keep foot traffic to a minimum.
Plans for bringing jury panels back have not yet been finalized and will depend greatly on the course of the pandemic. Judge Carrión is on a statewide workgroup studying the many “daunting and challenging” issues presented when considering the resumption of jury trials during a pandemic. An early-Fall spike in the number reported cases, as some predict, would have an obvious adverse impact on any such plans. Methods for ensuring the safety of jurors and other participants, and convincing them that it is safe to report to court, are under review, as are policies for postponing jury service for people with individual health concerns, child care issues if school do not reopen, or who are called back to their jobs after lengthy furloughs. Space limitations in jury assembly areas, courtrooms, and deliberation rooms are major concerns, as are more mundane but equally important questions regarding appropriate sanitation when handling writing pads, pens, trial exhibits, verdict sheets, or even cash payments for juror expenses, to name but a few touch points when conducting trials by jury. All of these issues are under review.
The judge indicated that she would convene another meeting with the Bar as the Court gets closer to conducting bench trials at Phase IV, and again before the final preparations are set in anticipation of Phase V.