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Criminal trials go first when juries return, Ripken says

Criminal cases will be scheduled before civil litigation when jury trials resume Oct. 5 if all goes according to plan amid uncertainty about COVID-19’s resilience and the likely need for social distancing well into the fall, the chair of Maryland’s Conference of Circuit Judges said Friday.

“Criminal will take priority in terms of jury trials,” added Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Laura S. Ripken. She said the Constitution and the state’s judiciary constitution place greater significance on criminal trials — “where liberty is at stake” and defendants have a right to speedy trials — than on civil cases related to financial compensation.

However, criminal trials will not be conducted to the exclusion of all civil jury trials, as these “other matters will be going on,” Ripken said. Circuit court judges have been ordering and holding more settlement conferences in civil cases amid the pandemic with the hope of resolving them out of court, Ripken added.

“We are conducting many, many settlement conferences,” Ripken said. “We have been doing that all along.”

Ripken’s comments followed the Maryland Judiciary’s transition last Monday to another step toward its planned return to full service on Oct. 5, the first Monday in October. The courts kept to that schedule by resuming nonjury trials in circuit and district court and reopening clerk’s offices to the public for the first time since March 16, when Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued her first emergency order aimed at stanching the spread of COVID-19.

Maryland District Court Chief Judge John P. Morrissey said Friday that conducting judicial business amid the pandemic has been “a stressful time for everyone” but that the judges , attorneys and court staff have been managing well. He said judges and lawyers are adapting to the increased use of technology to conduct proceedings remotely when possible.

“It has been a process of growth, a process of learning,” Morrissey added.

Amid hope that its phased resumption will remain unchanged, the Maryland Judiciary has formed a jury trial work group chaired by Prince George’s County Circuit Administrative Judge Sheila R. Tillerson Adams, Ripken said. The group is not only drafting plans for the scheduled return of jury trials but will also examine contingency options if the public health emergency delays the trials’ resumption, Ripken said, declining to discuss potential contingencies.

Ripken noted that Maryland’s 24 circuit courts have local variations on which procedures are handled remotely and which are conducted in person, variations that have caused confusion among the state’s lawyers. She advised attorneys to look at the respective circuit court’s website, read its pandemic emergency procedures and ask questions of court personnel.

“Get the information,” Ripken said. “It’s available.”

Ripken voiced gratitude for the “patience and kindness” exhibited during these trying and uncertain times by Maryland’s attorney and judges, who are on “the front lines of the third branch of government.”

“I just ask that everybody continue with that in mind,” Ripken said.

Morrissey, the chief district court judge, recalled his years in private practice in saying he sympathizes with the attorneys who miss litigating their cases in court.

“I feel for them,” Morrissey said.

“This is a very difficult time,” he added. “I hope they make it through this time and avail themselves of the information we provide on our websites.”

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