The Howard County Bar Association held a virtual town hall meeting on May 6, 2020, during which Circuit Court Administrative Judge William Tucker and District Court Administrative Judge Pamila Brown discussed the current operating procedures in Howard County courts as well as how the courts are preparing to reopen.
Peace/Protective Orders The district court is handling all peace/protective orders remotely. Judge Brown stated that the court commissioner is issuing interim orders that include a date for a final hearing. District court judges review the commissioners’ orders to decide whether the allegations warrant having a final hearing while courthouses are closed, or continuing the hearing. The relevant factors include whether the party is requesting an order to vacate home, a granting of child custody, or if the respondent has firearms. If a respondent has been arrested, the district court will try to set a final protective order hearing the following week.
Judge Tucker indicated that the circuit court is not issuing any new or initial protective orders at this time; they have to come from the commissioner or district court, or be an appeal. If the allegations do not constitute an emergency, the petitioner will receive a hearing date after June 8, 2020. The Court has taken some cases that were transferred from district court if part of a pending domestic case; those cases are set in for a hearing relatively quickly. All domestic violence cases before the circuit court have been heard in person.
Virtual Evidence and Testimony Because Howard County uses MDEC, evidence should be scanned and placed into the appropriate court file. The courts are providing pro se litigants the courthouse fax number to submit evidence; the clerk then scans and put the documents into MDEC. The evidentiary process takes place before admission into the record. Counsel and parties are urged to submit documents earlier rather than later to avoid a delay in a document being downloaded and placed into the court file. The judges urged counsel to email the court to notify them of any day-of submissions.
Judge Brown acknowledged that it can be difficult to verify a witness’s identity in a virtual hearing. The district court is only handling domestic orders; in those cases, a security question is given to the petitioner when they ask for relief, and they must provide the security question to the hearing officer before their hearing proceeds. Any witnesses are sworn under penalty of perjury. Judge Tucker noted that the circuit court has not had any witness issues because all of their hearings have been in person.
Time Limits in Remote Hearings There are currently no time limits imposed on remote hearings. Judge Brown indicated that the district court is currently scheduling domestic violence hearings beginning at 10:30 a.m. in 20 minute intervals into the afternoon. There is no method right now for counsel to let the court know in advance if they expect to need more than 20 minutes. Counsel intending to call multiple witnesses should let the court know in advance so that the case can possibly be set later in the day or even on another day.
What Will Happen in June? Four workgroups have convened to address the parameters of reopening the courthouses to the public. The courts will have a sizeable backlog of cases, including hundreds of domestic violence cases set for June. There will likely not be much ability to specially set cases that need a half- or full-day until at least mid-summer. The courts are exploring the use of remote communications even beyond the pandemic.
Jury Trials It remains to be seen whether civil jury trials set for July will be held or postponed. If courts actually open June 8, jury trials would be at least six weeks beyond that. Criminal jury trials will most likely take priority over civil trials. It may be difficult to seat jurors in a time when members of the jury pool may use fear of COVID as a reason to be excused from jury duty.