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Editorial Advisory Board: Baltimore courts need MDEC now

The courts in Baltimore city suffer from decades of neglect – we have written several editorials over the past decade regarding the dire state of Baltimore city’s courthouses. A letter from Judge Barbara Baer Waxman highlights the digital divide between Baltimore and other Maryland jurisdictions. The current public health crisis, which likely will linger in some form for months, if not years, militates that Baltimore begin the process to implement electronic filing and communications now.

This disparity was driven home when on April 9, 2020, Judge Waxman, the administrative judge of the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City, wrote an open letter to the bar requesting that counsel not file anything other than emergency motions.

Judge Waxman wrote in her letter:

“Those who practice throughout the State have experienced the difference in capabilities between MDEC jurisdictions and the 3 remaining, non-MDEC jurisdictions (Baltimore City, Prince George’s County & Montgomery County). MDEC stands for Maryland Electronic Courts.

“All pleadings in the District must be filed on paper. All paper pleadings must be individually processed by the clerk’s office. Paper filings pass through many hands and pose risk to others. Our processes pose different safety risks than those available in MDEC Districts. Our manual procedures also preclude the few, essential staff present from processing, filing, and managing non-essential paper filings as well as updating case-search entries therefor.”

What Judge Waxman wrote about the District Court also is true for the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Over $100 million has been allocated to Baltimore as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It is likely that other emergency federal funds will be coming Baltimore’s way in the coming months. Although Baltimore has many pressing needs, CARES Act and other federal emergency funds should be used for immediate upgrades to the computer systems in Baltimore’s courthouses so that MDEC could be implemented quickly and so that lawyers and judges could file and rule on matters remotely.

It is likely that the current public health crisis will persist and have recurring waves for a significant period of time to come. When physical access to the courts is limited – whether by the need to shelter in place due to COVID-19 or weather events such as blizzards and hurricanes – people cannot have meaningful access to the courts unless the courts have 21st-century technology. Courts are an essential function and if there is federal money available it should be put to use for essential functions. As the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer would have said: “Do it now.”

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Michael Hayes

James Haynes

Ericka N. King

Stephen Z. Meehan

C. William Michaels

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

Vanessa Vescio (on leave)

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.