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MSBA President Mark Scurti recently hosted Baltimore City Circuit Court Administrative Judge Audrey J.S. Carrión at his monthly Coffee Chat, held virtually on November 4, 2020.  Their discussion and the question and answer period that followed focused on the resumption of jury trials on October 5, as the court entered Phase V of the Maryland Judiciary’s phased resumption of operations following the COVID-related shutdowns. Judge Carrión reported that the first month’s results have been encouraging, but cautioned that the situation remains fluid and is still far from pre-COVID “business as usual.”  

Judge Carrión said that the court is moving forward cautiously. The health and safety of court personnel and trial participants continues to be the court’s primary concern, which requires the court to take extraordinary measures to keep building densities low to accommodate the need for social distancing.  The current goal is to schedule one or two jury trials per day and conduct up to five to seven jury trials a month, slowly increasing the volume and complexity of the cases as conditions permit.  The Judge noted by way of contrast that the court had been scheduling 6,000 jury trials per year prior to the pandemic.

In her remarks and in answer to questions from Judge Scurti and the MSBA members, Judge Carrión described the arrangements made thus far and some of the court’s plans for the future:

Courtrooms. Each of the courthouses has two courtrooms set up to handle jury trials.  The courtrooms in the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse are being used exclusively for criminal cases, while those in the Elijah Cummings Building are dedicated to civil causes, limiting the need for jurors and others to travel between the buildings.   Each of these courtrooms has been outfitted with plexiglass dividers around the bench, the clerk’s area, and the witness stand.  Plexiglass has also been installed between the chairs of individual jurors, and between attorneys and their clients at the trial tables.  The court purchased headsets and microphones that enable attorneys and their clients to communicate privately while still being able to distance safely.  The court has hired a day porter service to disinfect touch points throughout the day, and between witnesses.  They are also cleaning the courthouse restrooms regularly during the day.  

Jury Deliberation Rooms.  As existing jury deliberation rooms are too small to permit jurors to deliberate at safe distances, the court set aside two additional courtrooms in each building that are being used exclusively for this purpose. The court has removed or rendered inoperable the communications systems in these courtrooms to ensure the integrity of juror deliberations.

Jury Assembly and Voir Dire.  While awaiting their jury service, prospective jurors are assembling in the respective courthouses (civil and criminal), which have sufficient room since fewer jurors are being called and much of the court’s other business is being conducted remotely.   A typical civil jury panel now consists of 100 prospective jurors, and nearly half of those called have participated in jury selection remotely.  For criminal cases, panels range from 100 to 200 members. The court has been excusing jurors liberally, rescheduling the service of those still uncomfortable coming to court.  It is also negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the City of Baltimore to allow the court to use the War Memorial Building for jury assembly, which would provide additional space.  Judge Carrión expects to have the MOU in place after the first of the year. 

Judge Carrión reported success in conducting remote civil voir dire, which allows the trial judge to conduct voir dire from the courtroom while the attorneys and venirepersons are in their homes and offices. For those potential jurors who are unsure of the technology or lack access to it, the court has set up a “Zoom room” in the Mitchell Courthouse.  The prospective juror can report to that location and be questioned from there while the judge and attorneys remain in place so that contact and movement around the buildings is limited.  Judge Carrión also reminded listeners of her October 29, 2020 administrative order, excerpted below, regarding appropriate decorum for all remote proceedings in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.  

Case Selection.  The court has increased the use of scheduling conferences in both civil and criminal cases in an effort to identify cases that are both ready and appropriate for trial by jury under existing conditions.  Judge Carrión encouraged attorneys to communicate with the court in this regard, and also to let the court know if they have a matter that might be susceptible to alternative dispute resolution, or a bench trial.   The use of mediation and settlement conferences has increased during the pandemic, as has the number of cases being tried without a jury. 

No lengthy or complex civil trials have been scheduled because of the number of trial days and attendees that would be required, but this is expected to change as everyone becomes more comfortable with the new procedures.  Likewise, to limit the number of jurors that need to be called into court, criminal trials have been limited to those allowing only four peremptory challenges (i.e., cases involving crimes with sentences of less than 20 years), although the court is preparing to begin hearing cases that permit five and 10 strikes.    

Communications with other jurisdictions.  Judge Carrión explained that the circuit court administrative judges continue to confer weekly on COVID-related matters, and that from what she is hearing, Baltimore City is doing reasonably well compared to other jurisdictions.   Despite the limitations inherent in its older buildings, for example, Baltimore’s courthouses offer some space advantages that other courthouse do not have.  The Judge closed by noting that each court has its own challenges in trying to keep its stakeholders safe, and that she is grateful for the manner in which the entire courthouse family has worked together to address those faced by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Judge Scurti reminded everyone that at the 2020 Solo & Small Firm Summit on November 11, Judge Carrión will be on a panel of Maryland judges who will discuss best practices for representing clients effectively and safely in court during the pandemic.   A separate presentation by attorneys who have tried civil and criminal jury trials since the courts entered Phase V on October 5, will discuss their experiences and lessons learned. 

Information about Legal Excellence Week and the Solo & Small Firm Summit can be found here

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Rules of Decorum for Remote Hearings

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR BALTIMORE CITY

Administrative Order No. 2020-12

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ORDERED that effective immediately all participants in remote hearings before the Circuit Court for Baltimore City shall adhere to the following rules of court decorum:

1.Participants shall be on time and follow remote hearing platform directions.

2.Participants shall dress appropriately for a formal court environment.

3.Participants shall ensure that distractions are not present, such as driving.

4.Participants shall not interrupt others when they are speaking nor attempt to speak over others.

5.Participants shall be respectful and courteous.

6.Participants shall refrain from eating and/or smoking.

7.Participants shall not be permitted to use or access their phones while participating in a video-conference remote hearing unless permitted to do so by the presiding judge or magistrate.

8.Participants shall not take screen captures, screenshots, photographs, videos or make other electronic recordings of the proceeding or other participants.