The Prince George’s County Bar Association hosted Administrative Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams and several of her colleagues for a town hall meeting to discuss the Court’s April 26, 2021 re-entry to Phase V (full operations) of the Judiciary’s COVID-19 plan. Moderated by association board member Steven B. Vinick (Stein Sperling), the April 1 meeting focused primarily on the resumption of jury trials, and included a report from the Family Law Division.
Judge Adams first thanked members of the Bar for their patience and cooperation during the pandemic. She expressed appreciation for their willingness to work through early experiments with virtual hearings and the use of the drop boxes. These COVID-related procedures will remain in place for the near future. The judge announced that while all employees are back in the building, visits to the Clerk’s office are still by appointment only, so parties should continue to use the drop boxes to file papers with the Court.
The courthouse has been outfitted with new signage to encourage distancing, updated plexiglass partitions in all courtrooms, and other measures to ensure the health and safety of the entire courthouse community. All visitors are required to undergo temperature checks and answer a COVID-19 questionnaire before entering the courthouse. Everyone, including witnesses, will be required to wear a mask at all times. Those seeking entry to the building are encouraged to visit the Court’s website to download a QCR code to their phones to facilitate entry.
Jury selection generally. As social distancing is still necessary, the jury assembly room that holds 450 prospective jurors cannot be used. The Court will instead use three large courtrooms—a main selection room and two adjoining rooms—that can accommodate a total of 56 venirepersons. Jury selection will be staggered, with a single session in the morning (9:00 AM) and afternoon (1:30 PM). Only two juries will be selected each day.
A Juror Information Guide will be sent to prospective jurors in advance. It contains a general description of procedures and instructions for filling out the juror questionnaire, gaining entry to the courthouse, using Zoom, and other useful information.
Criminal jury trials. Judge Nicholas E. Rittal discussed the plans for criminal jury trials, which are scheduled to begin on April 26. Criminal juries will be picked on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the morning reserved for cases in which a defendant has 10 or more peremptory challenges.
Jurors called for criminal cases will report to the courthouse in-person. The Court will use three courtrooms that together will hold 56 prospective jurors, 10 of whom will be in a courtroom with the judge and the lawyers. The others will be split between the two adjacent courtrooms. Initial questioning will be done en masse (via Zoom for those in the adjacent rooms), and jurors who give positive responses will be brought into the main courtroom individually for follow-up questioning.
Judge Rittal stressed the importance of the early exchange and submission of voir dire. The questions will ultimately be merged into a single document with numbered questions that will be put verbatim and in identical order to each panel. As everyone will have the same list of questions, the Court and counsel can record positive responses by question and juror number.
Cases involving incarcerated defendants are being prioritized. Scheduling will thereafter be governed by the age of the case. Judge Rittal noted that jurors and trial slots are “too valuable to waste,” so the Court will be using a “move list” that could go six to 10 cases deep depending on the day. Anyone with a case on the move list should be prepared to go to trial regardless of where they are on the list.
The Court will hold a status conference several weeks before a case is scheduled for trial to determine whether it is still in trial posture, whether the defendant is incarcerated, the anticipated length of trial and the like. Attorneys should expect follow-up contact from the Court a week before trial to see if anything has changed and to let them know their position on the move list. Judge Rittal also said that while the Court is monitoring jail cases, attorneys with incarcerated clients need not wait to be contacted by the Court for a trial date and should contact the Court to make sure the case is on its radar.
The Court will conduct a daily plea docket staffed by judges willing to enter binding plea agreements. Judge Rittal urged attorneys with suitable cases to contact Calendar Management to get their cases set for a plea. In response to a question, Judges Adams and Rittal said that they will look into how best to handle cases that have been specially assigned to a judge who will not bind.
Civil jury trials. Judge John P. Davey addressed civil dockets, noting that the Court’s pre-COVID census of 3,000 pending cases has ballooned to 4,200. Civil jury trials are set to begin on May 5, with jury selection occurring on Wednesdays and Thursdays. As with the criminal cases, there will be morning and afternoon panels. Unlike criminal cases, there will be no move list and civil jury selection will be entirely remote; not even the attorneys will be in the courtroom for voir dire. Jurors selected for service will be required to report to the Court the following day when the trial will begin. In a break from pre-pandemic tradition, empaneled juries will sit on Fridays, which are no longer reserved solely for motions and collateral matters.
To ensure that the process goes smoothly, proposed voir dire questions, jury instructions, and verdict sheets must be filed and exchanged at least seven days in advance. Objections are due three days prior to jury selection. As with criminal cases, affirmative answers to voir dire questions will be noted for follow up questions to be explored with jurors individually using Zoom breakout rooms.
The Court has already conducted status conferences for the cases scheduled in May, and will soon be holding them for cases set for June. Judge Davey warned attorneys that continued cases are already being scheduled for Spring 2022, so postponement requests should be made judiciously.
Judge Davey also reported that the Court is preparing to conduct some civil trials remotely, perhaps as early as July. The Court of Appeals’ Rules Committee recently proposed rule changes that will authorize electronic or “virtual” civil jury trials. Anticipating this, the circuit court has published a Draft Report of the Workgroup to Establish Protocols for Virtual Civil Jury Trials. The judge encouraged attorneys to review the draft and submit comments to the workgroup. He also suggested that attorneys familiarize themselves with the non-trial procedures in the draft as they will be used beginning in May. Remote trials, if and when they begin, will be limited to Track 2 (auto tort, workers’ comp, and premises liability) cases. Until then, the Court will continue to do as much as it can electronically and will, for example, consider remote witness testimony upon request.
Family Law Matters. Judge Daneeka V. Cotton reported that the Family Law Division will continue to operate in Phase V as it has throughout the pandemic. Magistrates have conducted remote uncontested divorce hearings all along, and the Court has likewise kept up with its status conferences, emergency custody motions, and other matters. Cases are being processed without interruption and dates for scheduling conferences, merit trials, and related hearings are being set in compliance with the Court’s differentiated case management plan.
Judge Cotton advised that all family law matters are being heard remotely, except for temporary domestic violence protective order petitions. The Court will consider written requests for in-person hearings in other matters on a case-by-case basis.
All motions must be filed in hard-copy using drop boxes located at the Commissioner’s entrance in the Bourne Wing or outside of Duvall Wing D1033. The judge reminded counsel that exhibits must be submitted no later than noon on the day before the hearing. Exhibits of more than 15 pages must be submitted in an envelope that clearly identifies the case by name and number. Exhibits totaling 15 pages or less may be emailed to the presiding judge’s staff. Judge Cotton assured listeners that judges do not look at exhibits before they are admitted into evidence, so attorneys should include in their packages anything (including potential rebuttal material) that they might need at trial. She also suggested unobtrusive pre-numbering sufficient to allow staff to identify the exhibit but which leaves room for renumbering as the hearing unfolds.
All four judges expressed their appreciation for the manner in which members of the Bar have partnered with the Court to work through what will continue to be a fluid process. They noted that the procedures in place constitute the plans for May and June only. Changes should be expected as the pandemic continues on its erratic course. Operational updates will be posted on the Court’s COVID-related web page. Judge Adams invited all attorneys to provide the Court with their comments and suggestions through the Prince George’s County Bar Association.