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Courts’ return will not be ‘business as usual,’ Barbera says

Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe says pandemic restrictions have made it diffcult for many indigent defendants to have access to counsel. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe says pandemic restrictions have made it difficult for many indigent defendants to have access to counsel. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s trial courts will “adhere to the mandates of of due process and the rule of law” as they gradually return to full operations on Oct. 5 during these “unprecedented and challenging times” of COVID-19, the state’s top judge said Thursday.

“Resumption of operations does not mean business as usual,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera added. “We have a long way to go before we see the end of this pandemic. We will get through this together.”

Barbera spoke to the House Judiciary Committee by videoconference regarding the court system’s phased-in process toward full operations that will begin 5 p.m. June 5.

At that time there will be a slightly expanded list of court proceedings that the chief judge deemed in March as emergency actions that must continue to be staffed and conducted amid the pandemic. These existing procedures include domestic violence petitions, detention hearings, bail reviews, arraignments, juvenile hearings and protective orders.

The additional procedures will include emergency evaluation proceedings, quarantine and isolation petitions, emergency habeas corpus proceedings and extradition cases, under an emergency order Barbera issued Friday.

“We have been appropriately cautious,” Barbera told the House committee. “We are going to be informed day to day.”

July 20 will involve a more substantial expansion, with the reopening to the public of district and circuit court clerk’s offices and the resumption of certain nonjury trials in circuit and district court, including allegations of violence or drunk driving.

Circuit courts will also resume hearing motions requiring witness testimony, deferred sentencing hearings, attorney disciplinary proceedings, settlement hearings, court-ordered mediations in family law cases, adoptions and contested hearings for termination of parental rights.

“We are prepared to move forward out of this emergency,” Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Laura S. Ripken, chair of the Conference of Circuit Judges, told the House committee Thursday.

Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told the panel that the resumption of criminal trials will shrink the court docket but not as quickly as the justice system would prefer.

“The tremendous backlog, for the foreseeable future, is not going away,” McCarthy told the House committee.

Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe told the committee he is concerned that the pandemic-compelled delay in jury trials could violate the defendants’ constitutional right to speedy trials and that remote proceedings could violate their right to confront their accusers in court.

DeWolfe also said the demands of social distancing have created obstacles to attorneys’ need to meet privately with their clients to ensure the confidentiality of their conversations. He said prison and detention facility officials should “bring technology to bear” by permitting detainees and inmates to use cellphones or tablets to communicate with their attorneys.

Under Barbera’s order, everyone seeking access to a courthouse or court office will have to answer health screening questions, be subject to temperature checks, wear a face covering and practice social distancing. Individuals denied access will be provided information on conducting the proceedings remotely or having them rescheduled, the order stated.

Eviction and foreclosure proceedings, stayed under a prior COVID-19-related emergency order from Barbera, can resume July 25.

Aug. 31 will mark a full resumption of nonjury criminal and civil trials in circuit and district court followed on Oct. 5, when “all courts will resume full operations, including jury trials in criminal and civil case types in the circuit court,” Barbera’s order stated.

But even with the reopening of the courts, the order stated that judges should conduct proceedings remotely to the extent they can.

“The use of technology is what’s going to move the ball in terms of access to the public,” Barbera told the House committee.

The chief judge’s pandemic-related administrative orders are available on the Judiciary’s website.

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