Administrative Judge Dorothy Wilson held a town hall meeting on May 20, 2020, to discuss current operations and the Court’s plans as it awaits new statewide administrative orders to guide the next phase of the COVID-19 emergency response. Judge Wilson was joined by Administrative Clerk Maria Fields and Administrative Commissioner Whitney Wisniewski. The meeting and question and answer session was moderated by attorney Christopher Nicholson on behalf of its sponsor, the Baltimore County Bar Association.
With respect to current operations, Judge Wilson reported that the Court’s handling of bail reviews, domestic violence protective orders, extreme risk protective orders, peace orders, and petitions for emergency evaluations has continued unabated. She said that these cases would remain priorities after operational limitations are lifted. Despite operating with limited staff, the Court is up to date on all MDEC filings, and has kept pace with papers filed through its drop boxes, which are emptied hourly.
Courthouses. Judge Wilson reminded her listeners that even before the emergency restrictions, the Towson courthouse was closed for repairs and its operations moved to the newly constructed courthouse in Catonsville. This delayed the move out of the old Catonsville courthouse, which remained open until all courts were closed to the public in March. When the courts closed, the old building was also closed to staff, which could be more safely accommodated in the new space. Judge Wilson does not yet know whether the old Catonsville courthouse will reopen, although that remains a possibility as the additional space might allow the Court to spread out its dockets to minimize foot traffic at each location. Much will depend on the pace of repairs in Towson.
Social Distancing. Ms. Fields discussed what the public can expect to see at the County’s courthouses as they reopen. Bailiffs will work the metal detectors and conduct temperature screenings from behind plexiglass shields. Protective barriers will be installed in other areas to protect the staff and the public. As in other courthouses around the state, signage and floor markings will be added to help enforce social distancing directives, particularly in lobbies, around the docket boards and in other areas where people congregate. Elevator use will be restricted, and enhanced cleaning protocols will be implemented. Inside the courtroom, gallery seating will be regulated and attorneys and clients will be separated by the length of the trial table, or by seating the client in the first row of benches behind the well of the court. Trial tables and chairs will be wiped down between cases, and facemasks are likely to be required throughout the building for some time into the future.
Dockets and Scheduling. Judge Wilson said that to reduce the number of staff and visitors in the courthouses, dockets will be considerably smaller than in the past. When the doors reopen to the public, the Court will continue to prioritize the types of cases that it is already handling on an emergency basis, and will continue to do as much as it can by video and teleconference. Matters that need to be heard in-person will be set at staggered times. After the backlog in those cases is addressed, the Court will add dockets for incarcerated criminal defendants and landlord/tenant matters.
Landlord/Tenant. Judge Wilson reported that there are 10,000 pending landlord/tenant cases, and that number continues to grow. All of these need to be scheduled, and many are still awaiting service on defendants. When these cases are assigned trial dates, the Court will prioritize tenant holding over, breach of lease and wrongful detainer actions over failure to pay rent cases. As to the latter, cases will not be scheduled en masse as in the past. Plans for reducing these historically large dockets are still under discussion, but the Court is hopeful that new procedures will allow for electronic dismissals to help cull failure to pay rent cases and reduce docket sizes.
General Civil. Trials of general civil cases will be the last to be scheduled, with trial dates set for late in 2020, and into 2021. All existing trial dates are to be continued, both to allow the Court to address priority cases, and to allow the Clerk’s office to assign staggered times for parties to appear. The Court is already selecting civil cases for remote pretrial settlement conferences and mediation to try to keep them moving, and to free up as much court time as possible. It is also considering holding some trials remotely, in whole or in part, to keep courthouse traffic down and to accommodate participants with special health concerns.
Criminal Cases. The Court has been taking pleas from incarcerated defendants remotely, and will continue to do so. When the Office of the State’s Attorney identifies cases for which an agreed sentencing recommendation has been negotiated, the Court has the jail add as many of those as can be safely handled to the daily bail review docket. This number is limited due to the jail’s need to maintain safe distances among its jail populations. When criminal trials are scheduled, cases involving incarcerated defendants will be given priority.
Commissioner Wisniewski reported that commissioners have continued providing 24/7 service for protective orders, peace orders, other emergency matters, and applications for statements of charges. Initial appearances are being conducted by video, with attorneys participating by telephone. The State has been advising the Court when it intends to reduce felony charges, and reductions for incarcerated defendants are handled as part of the Court’s bail review docket to allow release terms to be modified, if appropriate.
In closing, Mr. Nicholson reminded everyone that the situation in all of the County’s courthouses remains fluid, subject to changing public health advisories and the imminent publication of the next round of statewide administrative orders. He said that the bar association will continue to provide updates to the profession, and will schedule additional webinars and town hall meetings as needed.