The COVID-19 pandemic caused an abrupt closure of courts throughout the country and state. A year after the pandemic began, vaccination efforts are underway and courts are beginning to re-open, but many people are uncertain regarding what to expect in light of the continuing risks presented by the coronavirus and the changes in the ways courts operate. The Prince George’s County District Court held a Town Hall on April 7, 2021, to discuss the re-opening of the courts and how matters will be conducted going forward. The town hall was moderated by Jessica A. Quincosa, Esq., the Executive Director of Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County.
Administrative Judge Lisa Hall Johnson began by providing an overview of how the courts are currently handling COVID-19-related issues. She explained the Judiciary regularly receives information from the governor regarding the phases of reopening, and assesses this information along with data regarding positive cases in the county to determine how to move through the phases. In February and March there was a slight decrease in the number of cases in the county, but in recent weeks there was a slight increase, and the Judiciary discussed what those numbers mean. As of now, they do not anticipate making any changes to their current plan which calls for entry into Phase 5 on April 26.
Judge Hall Johnson then explained the measures undertaken to ensure the safety of people working in or entering the courts. Currently, people must undergo a temperature screening check and answer a screening questionnaire. Once people enter the building they will see numerous signs related to social distancing. Additionally, most of the seating has been removed, water fountains are not operable, and elevators are working at reduced capacity. She noted that social distancing and mask wearing is required, regardless of vaccination status. Plexiglass has been installed in the courtrooms, counsel tables are further apart, and there are signs in the galleries regarding where people can sit. Generally, about twenty people are permitted to sit in the gallery. The dockets have been adjusted due to the pandemic as well. There are smaller dockets for in person hearings and they have staggered start times. The Court is also working to identify cases that can be resolved without trial.
Judge Hall Johnson then addressed Phases 4 and 5 of reopening, which are outlined in the administrative order expanding statewide judiciary operations. Pursuant to the order, courts are authorized and required to conduct remote proceedings to the extent possible. Judge Hall Johnson issues a communication plan to the bar regarding each phase, to advise what the implementation will look like. In her March 3rd letter ahead of the March 15 return to Phase 4, she specifically stated that Prince George’s County District Court will continue to use remote technology whenever possible, and advised what hearings would be remote. Everyone is back in the Clerk’s office and no appointments are necessary. Pleadings are processed in the order they are received, but emergency motions should be filed at the counter so they can be handled promptly.
Civil Trials. Judge Katina Steuart then addressed how civil matters are proceeding in Phases 4 and 5. All of these matters are being held remotely. Judge Steuart advised the times for large claims have not changed and are still scheduled for 8:45 and 1:15. Because the hearings are remote, the notices must be generated by the Clerk’s office, and are generally sent out five weeks prior to the trial dates. Due to delays with the mail, clerks are also calling people to advise them of their trial dates. Attorneys can check the Maryland Judicial Case Search to determine their trial dates as well. The court continues to set large claims in the order of their original trial dates. Small claims are being heard remotely as well, at 9:00, 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning and 1:15, 2:15 and 3:15 in the afternoon. The miscellaneous docket is on Thursdays, and is also remote.
As of the beginning of the year, the court resumed issuing summons for new case filings and reissues. The cases still must be scheduled wherever there is space on the dockets. Currently, cases are being scheduled for October 2021. If attorneys wish to pick up summonses and reissues, they can do so, but only if their cases have received court dates.
Judge Steuart then discussed Zoom etiquette. Attorneys must make sure their witnesses have video capabilities so judges can assess their credibility. Witnesses should appear in a private location as well, where they are able to testify without interruption. Witnesses must also be provided with exhibits prior to a trial or hearing. Appropriate attire is still required.
Criminal and Traffic Trials. Next, Judge Robert W. Heffron, Jr. discussed the criminal and traffic dockets. He noted that in Phases 4 and 5 they will handle all types of cases. He reiterated that there was no intention for preliminary hearings and bond reviews to be conducted in person, and confirmed they will continue to be held remotely. He noted that, as with other dockets, criminal and traffic dockets had a significant backlog. To deal to the backlog, they are scheduling two jail cases per morning and approximately three dockets every afternoon. The State’s Attorney’s office reviewed 750 served summonses, and in a number of cases it was determined that the State would no longer proceed. The State’s Attorney’s office is now reviewing the 3500 unserved summons.
Domestic Violence and Peace Order Hearings. Judge Ada E. Clark-Edwards then spoke about the domestic violence and peace order dockets, which will continue to operate during Phases 4 and 5 as they have throughout much of the pandemic. These dockets are still staggered, as they were prior to the pandemic, with dockets at 8:45 and 1:15 for protective orders, and a 10:00 docket for peace orders. For the most part, domestic violence dockets are operating remotely, with the exception of walk-ins seeking temporary protective or peace orders, the hearings for which will be conducted in person. Parties will be provided email addresses through which they can submit evidence. Although most proceedings are remote, the Court is still making referrals to its justice partners, such as the Family Justice Center, Community Legal Services, and the House of Ruth.
Landlord-Tenant Trials. Landlord tenant coordinating Judge Gregory C. Powell then spoke. He noted that landlord-tenant cases resumed in March, including suits for possession for failure to pay rent. Unlike other dockets, these hearings are in person, and the dockets are staggered. Either party can request to appear remotely, however. They have a significant backlog of failure to pay rent cases, which are being scheduled in the order that they were filed. Attorneys can also file requests for emergency hearings if their cases need immediate attention.
Judge Patrice E. Lewis, the coordinating judge for the problem solving courts and the mental health court, and Judge Scott M. Carrington, the drug court coordinating judge, closed the meeting. Both judges reported the operations in these courts had largely remained unchanged during the pandemic.