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Maryland courts return to pre-COVID operation status

Maryland’s courts will return to normal operations next week, marking the first time since March 2020 that the judiciary hasn’t run under a phased COVID-19 reopening plan.

In a series of orders issued Monday, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty scheduled the courts’ COVID-19 health emergency to lift on April 4.

“This is the final step in resuming complete judicial operations, but we recognize that we still have more work to do,” Getty said in a news release.

“Our progressive five-phased operations plan proved to be a success and kept the Maryland Judiciary operational during the some of the most challenging times in our history,” he said. “I am confident the Judiciary is coming out of this pandemic with the experience of implementing innovative technologies to improve access to justice for citizens throughout the state.”

Under the newest administrative order, hearings that are scheduled to occur remotely after April 4 should be allowed to proceed that way if possible. Another administrative order encourages the courts to continue using remote proceedings “as a robust component of efficient case management in all the trial courts.”

I think we’re all working through what is the new normal,” said Deputy Public Defender Keith Lotridge.

“Depending on where you’re standing in the state, things look differently,” Lotridge said. “Some jurisdictions really embraced more virtual than others. Some jurisdictions have retained some of those options more than others.”

The courts largely shut down in March 2020 as COVID-19 spread across the United States. The pause on jury trials and other proceedings lasted for months, leading to fears of a major backlog and delayed justice.

The courts adjusted as the pandemic wore on, slowly moving through a five-phase reopening plan. Several times, the judiciary reverted back to earlier phases when health metrics worsened.

Getty moved the judiciary into Phase V, in which the courts are fully operational, on March 7.

“Things are looking more back to normal every day,” said Jase Tilley, a lawyer at Paley Rothman.

“It’s good news for clients and litigants who have been delayed a little bit by COVID, as everyone has,” Tilley said. “Things are looking positive in the administration of these cases and getting things through the process.”

Returning to normal court operations will also involve addressing the cases that built up during the pandemic, especially for defendants who are incarcerated, Lotridge said.

“One of the problems that we have is the jurisdictions that were hardest hit by COVID really restricted the cases and the flow more,” Lotridge said. “Those places have more backup now.”

Virtual hearings are also likely to remain an option even as the courts resume regular operations.

“I certainly can’t predict the future, but I would think that virtual hearings are here to stay going forward,” Tilley said. “I think that they do lend increased efficiency in a lot of ways, particularly in administrative tasks and other quicker things that can be done on a virtual basis.”

Luciene Parsley, the legal director at Disability Rights Maryland, said the widespread use of virtual hearings helped make the courts more accessible. The latest administrative order, she said, seems to encourage the use of virtual proceedings where possible even once COVID-19 protections are lifted.

“People may not know that they can ask for that, so I think that getting the word out that people can ask for those types of accommodations, and that the court appears to be supportive of those types of requests, is really helpful,” Parsley said.

As of Tuesday, federal courts in Maryland remained under standing orders for operations during COVID-19. Federal jury trials resumed last month and masks are still required.