On May 5, 2021, MSBA President Mark Scurti held a Coffee Talk, the last during his tenure, via Zoom. Judge Scurti hosted Judge James K. Bredar, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland; Judge John P. Morrissey, Chief Judge of the District Court of Maryland; and Administrative Law Chief Chung Pak, Chief Administrative Law Judge for the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearing. The judges all discussed the status of their respective courts.
Chief Judge Bredar kicked off the conversation by describing the state of affairs in federal court. He stated the objective in federal courts over the last year has been to maintain substantial functionality and honor the right to due process. It was also important to uphold the public perception that the courts are in operation. While he noted the court had not yet fully returned to pre-pandemic status, jury trials have resumed.
Chief Judge Morrissey then described the status in the State’s district courts. He noted the Maryland court system never fully closed during the pandemic, as the District Court could not delay bail reviews and domestic violence matters. As they moved through each Phase of reopening the courts to in-person hearings, they stressed the importance of enforcing safety protocols. While the courts are now open and working through the backlog, starting with criminal matters. they are not up to the speed that they were prior to the pandemic, and he does not believe they will be for some time.
Chief Judge Pak spoke next and reported on how his court has weathered the pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, most proceedings were conducted remotely, and he anticipates that they will continue to employ remote technology for certain matters even after the state of emergency ends, such as shorter hearings, bench decisions like driver’s license matters, mediations, and settlement conferences. People can also request that the court convert an in-person hearing to a remote hearing. Attorneys can check the court’s website regarding its current status.
Chief Judge Morrissey opined on the extent to which remote hearings will be conducted routinely after the pandemic. He noted that video technology has allowed the courts to achieve great success with remote hearings, and he thinks the courts will continue to employ remote technology going forward. Chief Judge Bredar stated that while federal courts are typically conservative in terms of the use of technology, they were forced to adopt innovative means to conduct hearings, also with great success. He advised that he and many other judges felt, however, that remote proceedings should not replace in-person hearings, as the human connection and other intangible benefits of conducting live sessions would be lost. Chief Judge Pak, conversely, found that virtual hearings were more efficient and allowed greater access to justice for many individuals. Hearings are evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they can go forward remotely.
While there are parts of the State that lack adequate internet access and extensive resources have been expended to make things safe for in-person hearings, Chief Judge Bredar could not recall any unsuccessful efforts at conducting either live or remote hearings during the pandemic. Judge Morrissey echoed Judge Bredar’s sentiments, noting that the courts have adapted and adjusted throughout the pandemic, and he could not point to any measures he considered a failure.
The judges then discussed the challenges associated with determining the priority of vaccine distribution among members of the bar and support staff.
The chat is available for viewing here.