Maryland Courts have been closed to the general public since March 17, 2020, and will remain closed until at least June 5 due to the ongoing pandemic. While an early June reopening is by no means certain, the Judiciary has been actively working on recommendations to guide administrative judges when they consider how best to resume operations in their respective jurisdictions. Several workgroups have been established at each of the two trial court levels, and all are expected to report back to Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera by May 15. A new round of administrative orders for a gradual or staged reopening is expected to follow, informed by the need to maintain social distancing for the foreseeable future.
Consulting with its justice partners and led by the Conference of Circuit Court Judges and the District Court Chief Judge’s Committee, each trial court is looking separately at the differing challenges faced by MDEC and non-MDEC jurisdictions (Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County), particularly as it relates to clerks’ office operations. Likewise, matters that require statewide consistency, such as the application of Maryland Rule 4-271 (the Hicks Rule), and those operations that may vary depending on courthouse facilities, like the resumption of grand jury proceedings, are also being addressed. Anticipated needs for every case type at each level are also being reviewed, both for purposes of prioritizing cases for scheduling, and for assessing the efficacy of remote participation by some or all of the participants.
Remote hearing procedures are expected to be employed for quite some time as each jurisdiction continues to evaluate its facilities and equipment to determine its ability to comply with executive orders and public health demands requiring distancing. Courtrooms and offices are being measured to determine, for example, how many people can safely be in the building or in a given area at one time; how far the bench, witness stand and trial tables are from each other; or whether jury assembly can be safely accomplished. The need for appropriate signage, taping and area roping to ensure proper distancing is being assessed, as is the availability of N94 masks and plexiglass shields to protect court staff, both in public areas and in the courtroom. Questions regarding health screening upon admission to buildings and appropriate disinfecting schedules also need to be addressed, and they, too, may differ from location to location.
The concerns seem endless and the resulting guidelines are unlikely to take a “one size fits all” approach. Upper Marlboro, after all, is not Centreville, and what works in a rural county will be different than what can be expected in the hard-hit D.C. suburbs. More likely is an approach similar to that of the federal judiciary, which has thus far established only “gating “ criteria to be used in each U.S. district based on local conditions. Simply put, this will not be easy or quick, and patience will be required of all. The MSBA will continue to monitor these developments and provide updates as they unfold.