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Court to vote Monday on giving chief emergency powers

ANNAPOLIS – Maryland’s top court will vote Monday afternoon on a COVID-19 pandemic-inspired proposal to give its chief judge sweeping emergency authority to have cases moved to other courthouses or, if necessary, to any suitable and available building.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera would also have the authority to suspend set or judicially ordered deadlines under the proposal that the Maryland Judiciary’s Rules Committee — short for the Standing Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure — approved Friday for the high court’s consideration.

The chief judge’s authority would apply if the Maryland governor declares an emergency or when a natural or other disaster “significantly disrupts” access to the courts, other judicial facilities or the Judiciary’s ability to operate effectively.

“What is before us is extraordinary and terribly urgent,” Alan M. Wilner, the Rules Committee’s chair, said before the committee’s approval. “There really is a need.”

The committee’s recommendation for expanding the chief judge’s powers followed Barbera’s order Thursday evening suspending all non-essential judicial activities immediately and all jury trials beginning Monday in response to the pandemic.

“Please know that judicial branch leadership at all levels of the courts are monitoring this situation closely and are committed to open access to the courts and service to the public,” Barbera said in a statement. “We will continue to update the Judiciary’s website as new developments arise.”

The Rules Committee proposal would enable the chief judge to “transfer cases pending in a court that becomes inaccessible or otherwise unusable to any other court having subject matter jurisdiction over the case (and to) permit cases to be filed in any court having subject matter jurisdiction where no court with venue is reasonably accessible or otherwise usable, subject to transfer when the emergency ends.”

For example, the chief judge could order a lawsuit moved from Baltimore City Circuit Court to Howard County Circuit Court, though the parties live in Baltimore and the event that sparked the litigation occurred in the city. The chief judge could also permit courts to operate in available facilities not designated as courthouses.

The proposed emergency rule would also enable the chief judge to “suspend, toll, extend, or otherwise grant relief from time deadlines, requirements, or expirations otherwise imposed by applicable statutes, rules, or court orders, including deadlines for appeals or other filings, deadlines for filing or conducting judicial proceedings, and the expiration of injunctive, restraining, protective, or other orders that otherwise would expire, where there is no practical ability of a party subject to such deadline, requirement, or expiration to comply with the deadline or requirement or seek other relief.”

The chief judge would also have the authority to “take any other appropriate action necessary to ensure that, to the maximum extent possible, essential judicial business is effectively handled by the courts.”

Wilner, the Rules Committee chair, said the proposed authority “isn’t a delegation run rampant” but “must be in harmony with the governor’s lawful” directives.

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