On May 4, 2020, Baltimore City Circuit Court Administrative Judge Audrey Carrión held a virtual town hall meeting promoted by the Bar Association of Baltimore City. Her stated purposes were to keep the Bar informed as to ongoing Court operations during the COVID-19 emergency, and of the steps being taken by the Court as it prepares to reopen its buildings to the public. The Judge addressed many topics, all of which shared a common theme: the health and safety of court staff and the public is, and will remain, the Court’s paramount concern. As a result, the reopening will be staggered as the Court gradually brings its public operations back on line in manner consistent with Chief Judge Barbera’s administrative orders, executive orders, and CDC distancing guidelines, as amended from time to time.
Facilities The first step toward reopening to the public will be to ensure that the buildings and points of contact in them (e.g., door handles, elevator buttons, touch screens, tabletops) are properly cleaned and disinfected, and that adequate security can be provided. The courthouses are now being disinfected on a regular basis, but that schedule will need to be adjusted as more people are admitted and more areas open for use. All entrants are currently screened by the Sheriff’s Department, and masks are required. The Court is hopeful that it will obtain a sufficient number of thermometers to allow the deputies to scan everyone as they enter the buildings when public access is permitted. The masking requirement is expected to extend until well after the Court reopens, perhaps even after trials have resumed.
The Court is working to ensure that appropriate social distancing can be maintained in all workspaces and public areas. Floors will be marked at 6’ intervals and plexiglass shields will be installed where needed. Foot traffic patterns are being analyzed for rerouting opportunities to minimize contact, and the Court is exploring other methods to lower foot traffic throughout its buildings. Judge Carrión acknowledged that in order to allow sufficient spacing, the Court may have to limit the number of people in work areas, which may require it to stagger work schedules, thereby slowing a return to previous operational levels.
Remote Hearings The Judge indicated that the use of remote hearings will continue for quite some time. All such hearings have been and will continue to be on the record proceedings, but have to this point been limited due to staffing restrictions. The use of remote hearings is expected to expand as staffing levels rise.
Scheduling/Jury Trials Judge Carrión reported that for now, the Court anticipates that existing trial dates for cases not directly affected by the closure will remain on the calendar. For trials that are postponed due to the COVID response and its aftermath (which due to the staggered reopening may extend into July), new scheduling orders will be issued.
The resumption of jury trials is a high priority for the Court, but only when it is safe to hold them. The need for distancing will present problems in jury assembly, courtroom seating, and for jury deliberations. Many options are being reviewed, including the use of the War Memorial and empty courtrooms to help with spacing. No decisions have been made as to the types of cases that will receive scheduling priority when trials are resumed, and Judge Carrión would not speculate on when that might happen. In answer to a question, the Judge did suggest that a criminal defendant’s bail status would likely be one of many considerations that will be part of this calculus.
Existing Scheduling Orders The Judge acknowledged ongoing anxiety about difficulties in complying with existing scheduling orders. She reiterated her earlier published request that parties refrain from filing motions to modify scheduling orders, expressing her concern that the volume of such motions would have a significant adverse impact on an already understaffed clerk’s office. The Court does not have the capacity to (and generally will not) rule on them, and they may become moot if the Court later modifies them on its own initiative. Judge Carrión reminded everyone of her prior advice that while scheduling order deviations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the Court “will look liberally” upon such deviations at the appropriate time.
Filings/Emergency Motions Other than discouraging the filing of motions to modify scheduling orders, the Judge indicated that court filing requirements were essentially business as usual, with a few notable exceptions. As there is no public access to the courthouse, pleadings, motions and other papers must be filed either by mail or through one of the two dropboxes that are available at the courthouses from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM. As all papers are quarantined for 24 hours and only then opened by staff, docketing and data entry delays occur. The postmark on papers mailed to the court will be deemed the date of filing. The date of filing is noted on papers filed through the dropbox and they are docketed regularly, but not immediately. In response to a question, the Judge suggested that if a party should discover a consequential date discrepancy, in case search for example, a protective motion might be filed to preserve the issue for later discussion.
The Judge reminded listeners that the non-MDEC jurisdictions (Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County) have limitations that others do not. The Court is, however, permitting the virtual filing of criminal and non-family law civil discovery matters, but only for those matters. Judge Carrión does not anticipate expanding virtual filings to other matters. Electronic signatures that comply with Maryland Rule 20-10, are being accepted. Listeners were also reminded to include email addresses on all filings, as required by Rule 1-311.
As emergency matters are being prioritized, Judge Carrión repeated her earlier instructions that practitioners need to prominently mark as an “emergency” any filing that they contend is an emergency. Court staff bring these to the attention of a judge, who determines whether it is a true emergency, and if so, whether a hearing is necessary to resolve it. Staffing is not yet sufficient to allow for action to be taken on non-emergencies, such as complaints, answers, routine motions and responses, notices of service of discovery and the like. The Judge noted that no response times have been extended, no exceptions have been made to rules requiring personal service, and that the reissuance of summonses or other process must be requested if it expires unserved.
Register of Wills In response to a question, Judge Carrión reported that she has been advised by the Register of Wills (ROW) that the ROW office is open and is accepting filings by mail as well as in person. As the ROW has no dropbox, anyone wishing to file in person has to call the ROW office to arrange to have one of its employees meet them outside the courthouse. New estates are being opened, and the original will must still be filed. The Judge added that the Orphans’ Court is also operating and conducting remote hearings as needed.
When Will the Court Reopen to the Public? Judge Carrión could not provide any further information as to when Baltimore City courthouses might reopen to the public. Existing administrative orders have closed the buildings through Friday, June 5, but that does not necessarily mean that they will reopen on Monday, June 8. Whether and to what extent statewide, as opposed to phased local reopenings, will be authorized by either the Chief Judge or the Governor remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City continues to assess and reassess its options as conditions evolve. The Judge expressed her intention to keep open a dialogue with the public and the Bar throughout this process.