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As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, we have seen an expansion of remote hearings and new filing procedures from many jurisdictions, as well as the development of Judiciary workgroups to assist in reopening considerations. The Judiciary has been working hard to ensure that the safety of our community and the public are addressed while continuing important court operations.

We have continued to receive many questions and comments from our members and partners including reopening questions, remote hearings, technology platforms, and filing considerations.  To date, MSBA has shared nearly 200 questions with the Judiciary on behalf of the profession. Please continue to reach out to us at feedback@msba.org with your thoughts on reopening. We will share these comments with the Judiciary to assist in their efforts.

We posed new questions to the Judiciary based on your concerns. As many of these questions are related, the Judiciary consolidated answers into 4-5 responses. We are grateful to the Judiciary for providing guidance as we look to June 8. 

Reopening Considerations

 1. The Judiciary has expressed an intent for a phased reopening for the courts. Should the public expect varied reopening procedures that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction? 

Both circuit and district courts have developed workgroups consisting of judges, clerks and administrators to develop recommendations to provide to Chief Judge Barbera as she considers when and how the courts may begin to safely expand operations. These workgroups have broken up into MDEC and non-MDEC groups and have further formed subcommittees by broad case types such as family law, guardianship, civil, criminal, traffic, and landlord/tenant. All courts, based on CDC, state and local health department recommendations, will implement health related protocols like entry screening questions, masks and social distancing. These recommendations have been made to Chief Judge Barbera. An Administrative Order will be issued by Chief Judge Barbera detailing the procedures, but it is anticipated that each court may vary as to application. The process for each court will be published on the Judiciary’s website.

2. Can the Judiciary speak to the health-related protocols and equipment that are being considered for reopening the courts? 

See the response to Question 1.

3. Assuming that remote proceedings will continue after courts reopen, and now that it has more experience with such proceedings, will the Judiciary offer uniform guidance for handling for certain categories of cases remotely after courts reopen? If so, can the Judiciary provide a timeline for this guidance? 

See the response to Question 1.

4. Can the Judiciary provide any updates on the types of cases that will be given scheduling priority when courts reopen? 

See the response to Question 1.

5. The Judiciary has communicated the establishment of circuit and district court workgroups made up of judges and staff who will provide recommendations to Chief Judge Barbera by May 15. Can you provide details about these workgroups, their membership and objectives, and the process by which they will provide recommendations? 

See the response to Question 1.

6. What if any role can attorneys play in assisting with reopening recommendations and the workgroups? 

Recommendations can be made to the MSBA. 

Remote Platforms

7. Practitioners have reported that a variety of remote platforms are being used by the courts (including GoToMeeting, Skype for Business, BlueJeans, Polycom, and telephonic hearings). They have expressed concerns about compatibility issues with certain mobile devices and computers, as well as the steep learning curve to orient themselves to multiple platforms.

a) Has the Judiciary considered offering uniform guidance across jurisdictions for remote platforms to simplify the process for litigants and attorneys?

b) If uniform guidance is not possible, has the Judiciary considered limiting the number of remote platforms that can be used to achieve some degree of uniformity? 

Due to the urgent nature of the actions taken as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to implement remote proceedings immediately, court locations varied in the type of remote platform used. Skype for Business is the current preferred platform. Polycom is already used by many courts and justice partners for conferencing with detention centers and has been used in conjunction with other remote platforms to conduct hearings. The Judiciary’s Judicial Information Systems is evaluating other remote platforms. Currently, Zoom is not recommended. Protocols for best practices when participating in remote hearings is being developed and will be published once complete.

8. Zoom has updated many of its security settings, and also has Zoom for Business with additional security features. Is the Judiciary considering lifting its earlier Zoom ban?  

See the response to Question 7.

9. The Judicial College has offered webinars on Skype for Business to Judiciary employees. Has this service been suggested as the platform of choice? 

See the response to Question 7.

10. Attorneys have expressed concerns regarding witness testimony and the lack of uniformity among remote platforms. For example, if a court is only conducting remote hearings telephonically, a judge lacks the ability to assess non-verbal clues, such as physical demeanor of a witness in a contested case, or to ensure the identity of participants. Has the Judiciary provided any guidance to the trial courts as to the types of proceedings that are appropriate for ordinary telephone conferencing rather than video conferencing? 

See the response to Question 7. 

Non-MDEC Jurisdictions

11. All three non-MDEC jurisdictions have implemented virtual filing procedures. Can the Judiciary provide any guidance regarding any planned uniform or expanded virtual filing strategies for these three jurisdictions going forward? 

No decision has been made at this time.

12. What, if any, impact has the COVID-19 emergency had on the timelines for getting MDEC to Baltimore City, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County? 

Planning for the completion of the MDEC rollout statewide continues during the pandemic. The impact to current timelines, if any, is not known at this time. 

Jury Trials

13. Is the correct interpretation of the current administrative orders that jury trials starting on or before July 17, 2020 (six weeks from June 5) are cancelled, and jury trial dates after July 17 will be maintained? 

Jury trials through July 17, 2020 have been cancelled. It is anticipated that when the Administrative Order is issued regarding expanding operations, further guidance will be given.