Administrative Judge Kathleen Gallogly Cox and several of her colleagues conducted a virtual town hall meeting on May 13, 2020, to address the Court’s current operations and its plans to reopen to the public when authorized to do so. Sponsored by the Baltimore County Bar Association and moderated by attorney Christopher W. Nicholson, more than 250 people listened as the judges supplemented information previously reported in the Court’s most recently published update to the Bar.
Before turning to her colleagues for specific reports on criminal, civil, family and juvenile matters, Judge Cox gave a general overview of statewide planning to reopen. All such plans will be guided by administrative and executive orders emanating from Annapolis. New administrative orders are expected after several Judiciary-wide pandemic workgroups report their recommendations to Chief Judge Barbera on May 15. The overarching priority, Judge Cox noted, is the health and safety of all who work at or visit the courthouse. This will require the restart to be phased in over time based on priorities set by the Chief Judge.
Facilities and Staffing Safety measures have been implemented at the courthouse and will intensify. Current requirements for face coverings and distancing are expected to remain in place throughout the summer. Cleaning and disinfection schedules have been modified, and their frequency will increase as more people are given access to the courthouse. Hand sanitizing stations are available at the entrance and will be installed on every floor. Additional safety measures, such as floor markings to encourage distancing, protective barriers for the staff, separate lines for ingress and egress, and enhanced health screenings are also being undertaken.
Much of the staff has been working remotely, and those in the courthouse are working staggered hours to reduce the number of people in the building at any given time. This is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Despite these limitations, the Clerk’s office has been able to process 97% of all court filings on the day that papers are filed, a tribute to both the staff and to MDEC.
Scheduling and Jury Trials As with staffing, cases will be set on a staggered basis to reduce contact. The Court will designate a time slot for every case to be heard in person (9:00 AM, 11:30 AM; 1:30 PM or 3:00 PM ). Judge Cox expects that teams of judges will be assigned to address the backlog in priority, high volume subject areas, most notably family law, CINA, peace/protective order, and criminal cases. The judge candidly acknowledged that she does not know when the Court will begin to conduct jury trials, but suspects that the need to maintain social distancing will continue, and that the Court will be unable to safely house jury panels before August, at the earliest.
Remote Proceedings The Court has been conducting remote proceedings regularly, and will continue to do so. While these are best suited for uncontested matters, scheduling conferences and settlement conferences, contested matters are being heard remotely. The Judiciary appears to be moving toward Skype for Business as its preferred platform.
Criminal Report Judge Cox reported on behalf of Judge Robert E. Cahill, Jr. that the Court is keeping its large bail review and plea dockets moving at pace. Judge Cahill has added a Saturday docket, helping to reduce the jail population from 1,250 to 797 during the COVID emergency. Nonetheless, there is a 2,000 case backlog for felonies, and the ability to address it will be largely dependent on the availability of trial dates. Cases that were postponed in March will be reset in June and July. The Court will not pre-clear dates with counsel, but will accept written postponement requests on a newly devised form that requests 3 (hopefully agreed) alternate dates from counsel. Speedy trial waivers for misdemeanor cases will also be accepted in writing, although hearings (which may be remote) are still required for felonies. The Court has suspended its practice of next day jury trials on prayers from the district court. Those trials will be set 6 weeks out. Judge Cox anticipates assigning 6 judges to cover criminal dockets, 2 of whom will schedule daily plea dockets with cases to be heard at 30 minute intervals. The State has been encouraged to get its plea offers out early to facilitate this process. Judge Cox noted her understanding that State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger has shown a willingness to deal creatively with cases susceptible to early resolution.
General Civil. Judge Judith C. Ensor reported that the unavailability of juries has caused the Court to focus on remote settlement conferences. Settlement conferences are current, and will continue to be held as scheduled. The Court will also revisit some cases that did not settle at earlier conferences. The Court is also current on motions, and those that require a hearing will continue to be heard remotely as scheduled. Judge Ensor requested that hearing exhibits be filed a week before the hearing, and that contested exhibits be flagged for the judge. As non-jury trials will begin before it becomes safe to bring jury pools into the courthouse, they will get the earliest trial dates. Civil cases will stay with the judge to whom they were assigned, although specially set cases are likely to be delayed as the Court works to clear backlogs in other areas.
Family Law Judge Ruth Ann Jakubowski also said that the Court is doing as much as it can remotely, and that it has kept up with settlement conferences for contested cases where both parties are represented. Many of these conferences are being conducted at the courthouse on staggered schedules to reduce traffic. Magistrates are hearing matters remotely, and have open calendars in June, July and August. Litigants will have a better chance to get their cases heard by a magistrate than a judge over the summer, again because judges will be focusing on priority matters. The Court is running multiple uncontested divorce dockets, which are being heard remotely and essentially on demand.
Everything else, the judge said, is “complicated”. Trial dates already in place for the first few weeks are likely to be postponed, and parties’ postponement requests will be reviewed liberally. Contempt proceedings are backlogged, in part due to difficulty in getting service, and are not yet getting hearing dates. Child access cases are also backlogged as only the most extreme cases have been heard during the emergency. Pendente lite hearings are unlikely to be scheduled, and cases will go straight to trial when dates become available. “Now is the time to settle,” Judge Jakubowsi said, “because if you don’t already have a trial date, you are looking at 2021.”
Juvenile Cases Judge Sherrie R. Bailey advised that the Court has conducted detention, shelter and consent hearings on a regular basis. She also offered to “squeeze in” anything that can be resolved remotely, even on nights and weekends. Otherwise, the Court will be prioritizing CINA and other cases that have federal funding or statutory deadline requirements.
Judge Cox said that she will continue to update the Bar as it and the Court continue to navigate these “un-chartered waters.”
The District Court of Maryland for Baltimore County will conduct a virtual town hall on May 21, 2020 at 4:00 PM.