The Bar Association of Baltimore City hosted District Court Administrative Judge Halee F. Weinstein and Judge L. Robert Cooper, the judge-in-charge of the Civil Division, to discuss the Court’s reentry to Phase IV of the Judiciary’s progressive plan to return to full operations. Moderated by Bench/Bar Committee Co-Chair T. Christine Pham, the March 18, 2021, town hall meeting included separate reports for criminal and traffic matters conducted at the Court’s Wabash, Eastside, and Patapsco Avenue locations, and for civil matters heard at its courthouse at Fayette and Gay. During their presentations and the Q&A period that followed, the judges stressed that the Court continues to be guided (and limited) by the need to protect the public and court staff during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Criminal,Traffic, and Peace/Protective Orders
Safety measures: Judge Weinstein said that the Court is operating much like it did during the Judiciary’s brief experience with Phase IV in the fall, before the COVID spike required a return to Phase II. Screening protocols for courthouse entry have been revised to incorporate current CDC guidance. Those seeking entry will still be asked a series of questions and, unless fully vaccinated, required to submit to a touch-free temperature check. The screening questionnaire is available online in English and Spanish and can be filled out in advance to facilitate entry. Proof of vaccination is not required of those who claim to have been innoculated.
Masking and social distancing are required throughout each courthouse and will be strictly enforced by the bailiffs. Every courtroom has been measured and maximum capacities for each (ranging from six to 12 people, exclusive of prosecutors and public defenders) have been set. Judge Weinstein suggested that attorneys discourage their clients from bringing large numbers of supporters and warned counsel that if the occupancy limit is reached, those not required for the matter then being heard (including attorneys waiting for their cases to be called) will be asked to leave. Questions about occupancy limits and enforcement should be directed to the lead bailiff at the courthouse.
Criminal Scheduling: To allow for appropriate distancing, dockets are staggered with three in morning (9:15, 10:15, and 11:15 AM) and three in the afternoon (1:15, 2:15 and 3:15 PM). The number of cases on each docket will vary depending on courtroom size. The Court will consider accelerating any matter susceptible to remote resolution upon joint request.
Incarcerated defendants are scheduled for an initial remote hearing at which the Court will hear preliminary matters such as dismissals, stets, and jury trial prayers, and take guilty pleas. If an incarcerated defendant wants a bench trial, it will be set at least 10 days out to allow the detention center to arrange for COVID testing and transportation. Judge Weinstein said that the 15-day time limit set by Rule 4-301(b) for written jury trial prayers can be waived with agreement by the State.
Bail reviews are conducted remotely, and arrangements can be made for family members to join. Hearings for adult males are conducted from Wabash at 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM daily, with an additional docket at 9:30 AM on Mondays. Bail reviews for adult females and juveniles are heard by a judge at the Hargrove building at 1:30 PM every day.
Traffic: Both incarcerable and non-incarcerable traffic cases are being heard in person, also on staggered dockets. They can be accelerated and heard remotely by agreement, and attorneys are encouraged to contact the Office of the State’s Attorney if they have matters that can be resolved in that manner. Speed camera, red light camera and EZPass cases are being heard remotely and in person, as are matters pending in the problem solving courts.
Domestic violence protective order and peace order cases are held in person, although the Court will consider conducting such hearings remotely if all parties agree. Incarcerated individuals participate remotely.
Safety measures: Judge Cooper reported that courthouse entry requirements are essentially the same as those at other buildings. Anyone denied entry is asked if they would be willing to participate remotely and if so, the matter will be referred to the presiding judge who will decide how to proceed after hearing from all interested parties.
Civil scheduling: In order to assess the time needed for trial and to limit the number of people in the courthouse, the Court is still requiring parties to participate in a remote pretrial conference for all contract and tort cases. These are typically conducted by telephone, but due to phone system limitations may be switched at the last minute to Zoom if there are more than three participants. Counsel were reminded to check their emails for changes, and to be prepared to discuss settlement at the pretrial conference.
As with criminal cases, civil dockets are staggered (9:00, 10:00, and 11:00 AM, and 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30 PM), with each case being allotted one or two hours for trial, depending on what the judge learns during the pretrial conference. If counsel anticipate a trial lasting longer than two hours, they should be sure to bring that up at the pretrial conference. Uncontested matters and motions hearings are being set at 15-minute intervals.
Judge Cooper reported that no one will be forced to try a case remotely, although the Court will consider conducting a remote trial upon motion and mutual request. Hybrid proceedings, with remote participation by some attorneys or witnesses, are available, and whether to allow it is discretionary. A motion to conduct all or part of any proceeding remotely should be submitted on the form designed specifically for this purpose.
The judge reported that cases are generally being scheduled according to their age, with the older cases scheduled before those with a more recent filing date. In response to a question, Judge Cooper said that the Court is not prioritizing landlord/tenant matters (e.g., tenant holding over and breach of lease) or other cases that seek possession of property (e.g., wrongful detainer), and that the Court is scheduling them with other civil cases wherever there is docket space. The Court has resumed its failure to pay rent (“rent court”) docket in Room 2, with staggered dockets throughout the day. These cases are also being scheduled according to filing date. The Court is processing affidavit judgments in accordance with the communication issued by the District Court headquarters in Annapolis on March 12, 2021.
Judge Weinstein closed the meeting by assuring attendees that the Court is committed to doing everything in its power to ensure the health and safety of all visitors to the City’s four district court locations. Policies are set by the Court but enforced by the bailiffs. The judge reminded everyone that because the courts never closed, its bailiffs never left the pandemic’s front lines. She urged all to “be kind to our staff.” Finally, Judge Weinstein said that the situation remains fluid and that adjustments can be expected as circumstances continue to unfold.