In-court proceedings can resume Monday morning on a limited basis in Maryland’s federal courthouses, including the scheduling of jury trials and the likely resumption of grand juries, Chief U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said this week as the state continues its slow recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most proceedings will continue to be conducted virtually to minimize the number of people in the Baltimore and Greenbelt courthouses. Court offices will remain closed to the public but people will be allowed in the buildings to observe court proceedings, Bredar stated in an order Wednesday.
Under Bredar’s earlier standing order of May 22, civil jury trials will not commence before July 1 and criminal jury trials will not begin before Aug. 1. Documents accompanying Bredar’s orders state that the court may only be able to handle shorter and less complex jury trials during the early stage of the resumption.
The limited resumption is in keeping with the federal court system’s guidelines for a four-phase return to full operations based on the host state’s COVID-19 recovery statistics and activities.
Bredar stated that he ordered the cautious shift to phase two based on Maryland Department of Health data showing sustained downward trends in both hospitalization rates over more than 14 days and in the incidents of deaths and confirmed new cases. He also cited Gov. Larry Hogan’s relaxation of his safer-at-home orders based on continued improvement in community COVID-19 statistics.
“If progress as to these factors stalls or reverses, such as if there is a resurgence of local COVID-19 cases resulting in increased hospitalizations, the court will consider reverting to a lower phase of operations,” Bredar added.
Maryland has had 63,548 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,901 people have died of the virus as of Friday morning, according to the state health department.
Staff who had been working remotely will be returning to the courthouses to assist with the in-court proceedings, Bredar said. However, staff members who are vulnerable to the virus or are caring for a vulnerable individual will remain authorized to telework, the chief judge added.
Existing COVID-19 related restrictions will remain in effect, including the requirement that only one person can be in an elevator at a time, that masks be worn inside the courthouses and that people keep at least six feet apart. The courthouse cafeterias and employee gyms will remain closed, Bredar stated.
The chief judge added that he and other court officials will continue to monitor health data and the lifting of community restrictions in determining if and when a move to phase three would be appropriate, permitting a further increase in court proceedings and greater access to courthouse facilities.
Maryland state trial courts will return to “full operations” including jury trials on Oct. 5 following a summer of gradual resumptions of court proceedings, including evictions, foreclosures and bench trials, the Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered in late May.
The first phase will begin 5 p.m June 5 and slightly expand the list of court proceedings that Barbera deemed in March as emergency actions that must continue to be staffed and conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including domestic violence petitions, detention hearings, bail reviews, arraignments, juvenile hearings and protective orders. The additional procedures include emergency evaluation proceedings, quarantine and isolation petitions, emergency habeas corpus proceedings and extradition cases, Barbera stated in her updated emergency order.
July 20 will involve a more substantial expansion, with the re-opening 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.
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.