The Bar Association of Frederick County hosted a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the progressive resumption of court operations as the courts move into the next phase in the Judiciary’s reopening plan. The June 4, 2020 meeting, moderated by Association president Janice Rockwell, featured remarks from Circuit Court Administrative Judge Julie Stevenson Solt and District 11 Administrative Judge Dino Ernesto Flores, Jr., and was followed by an hour-long question and answer period. The meeting was recorded and can be viewed here.
Circuit Court: In her opening remarks, Judge Solt addressed what she characterized as “a huge number of moving parts” and logistical challenges faced by the court while preparing to move through the phased resumption of operations required by the Court of Appeals’ June 3 amended administrative order. Operational limitations imposed on the court by social distancing requirements will require all stakeholders to be thinking about doing things in different and more efficient ways, adjusting to continually changing circumstances. As the court enters Phase 2 of the reopening plan (6/5/20 through 7/19/20), the courthouse will still be largely closed to the public while it works through its processes for safely accommodating visitors. Judge Solt noted, for example, that the court’s largest courtroom can accommodate only 15 people in its gallery, just one of many factors that will dictate limits on the number of people who can be in the building at any given time.
All visitors will be required to wear masks and answer a series of screening questions before entering the building. Those attending a scheduled event who are denied entry after screening will be given a form with instructions that essentially will require attorneys to call chambers, and others to call the assignment office. Efforts will be made to arrange for remote participation to allow proceedings to proceed as scheduled, or to be promptly rescheduled if remote participation is not possible. The courts are mindful of the potential for abuse and will be on guard against feigned illness or exposure claims as a ruse to force a postponement.
Judges, magistrates, and court personnel have been working diligently to reschedule cases postponed during the COVID shutdown, and to resolve as many matters as it can remotely. For now, their efforts have been focused on clearing massive backlogs in all areas, triaging those cases that will take priority during phases 2 (6/5/20 through 7/19/20), 3 (7/20/20 through 8/30/20), and 4 (8/31/20 through 10/4/20), so that the court is prepared to begin handling jury trials when the court reaches phase 5 (10/5/20 and beyond). Attorneys were referred to the Court of Appeals’ June 3 administrative order for the matters to be handled in each of these phases. When asked if the circuit court will have fully resolved the backlog before October when courts are to “resume full operations,” Judge Solt candidly acknowledged, “it’s not going to happen.”
Many questions posed to the judges involved scheduling issues. Criminal cases involving incarcerated defendants and those with speedy trial issues will be prioritized. Contested family law CINA and delinquency cases will come next. Judge Solt noted that even before the shutdown, contested divorce cases were being set in April 2021, a delay that will obviously be exacerbated as a result of the months-long closure and phased return to full operations. A renewed emphasis will be placed on alternative methods to resolve these and other civil disputes to help clear dockets. In that regard, mediation and family services will be provided remotely beginning June 8. When asked whether the court would consider bringing back examiners for uncontested divorce cases, Judge Solt said that the Administrative Office of the Courts is not yet prepared to authorize that.
As to general scheduling, the judge noted that litigants should already be getting notices of new trial dates, some of which will contain revised scheduling orders. Attorneys who have not received them, and those who wish to have a previous scheduling order revised, should file a line with the court.
In closing, Judge Solt reminded meeting attendees that these are unique circumstances that require new ways of thinking and new levels of cooperation between bench and bar. Noting that “we are all in this together,” the judge said that the court will do everything that it can to get cases resolved, particularly those that have been worked out among the parties. Attorneys should contact the court if they have an agreement that they want to place on the record or have memorialized in a court order.
District Court: Judge Flores observed that not much is expected to change as the district court moves into Phase 2 of the reopening plan. The types of matters that the court will be handling in Phase 2 do not differ appreciably from those it has handled in Phase 1, although there will be some changes, most notably in the landlord/tenant realm. Again, listeners were referred to the June 3 administrative order for a list of the types of cases to be heard in each phase of the reopening plan.
The district court’s first priority in Phase 2 will be to address the backlog in domestic violence protective order and peace order cases that have been awaiting contested hearing dates since the March 13 closure. Judge Flores expects that this could take up to a week in Frederick County, and perhaps three weeks in Washington County. Due to space limitations and social distancing requirements, only 10 people can be safely accommodated in district courtrooms, which will slow the process and impact all docket sizes going forward.
District court cases have and will continue to be heard remotely, although the court is conducting some cases in person while providing accommodations to people who are denied entry upon screening or who have health concerns that limit travel. The court is continuing to take guilty pleas remotely. The judge reported that the State and the public defender have been working together to resolve as many cases as they can, particularly cases involving incarcerated defendants.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the district court as the Judiciary enters Phase 2 is the addition of “emergency” breach of lease and wrongful detainer actions, defined in the administrative order as those involving threats or injury to people or property. As to those cases, the court may also process warrants of restitution during Phase 2. Non-emergency breach of lease and wrongful detainer actions, and associated warrants of restitution, will not be addressed until phase 3 (7/20/20), while trials for failure to pay rent cases must await phase 4 (8/31/20), when a flood of such cases is expected.
Judge Flores reminded practitioners that all such matters, as well as previously issued warrants of restitution in concluded cases (which will be processed beginning July 25), are subject to the Court of Appeals’ June 3 amended administrative order lifting the suspension of residential foreclosures, evictions and other ejectments. The order requires, among other things, that failure to pay rent complaints filed between June 3 and July 25 be accompanied by a declaration of compliance with federal CARES Act restrictions on evictions, or the clerk’s office will reject them. Cases that were filed between March 27 and June 3 will require a supplemental declaration to be filed with the court in order to be processed. The administrative order contains additional requirements concerning warrants of restitution, and should be carefully reviewed by anyone practicing in this area.
Judge Flores strongly encouraged litigants to submit hearing and trial exhibits electronically to reduce opportunities for transmission of the coronavirus. Attorneys should do so using MDEC, and the court is exploring ways to assure this capability for pro se litigants.
Both Judge Solt and Judge Flores pledged open communication between bench and bar, and invited attorneys to email them directly with questions and concerns that cannot be addressed by their clerks’ offices. They also undertook to provide additional information and direction as and when they receive it.