During March of this year, the courts were effectively shut down. Since then, the courts have been working diligently to move their way through the different reopening phases as safely as possible. On October 5, 2020, the Maryland Judiciary Court System entered Phase 5 of its Coronavirus reopening plan. This means that the courts are fully operational and open, including jury trials, the Court of Appeals, the Court of Special Appeals, Circuit Courts, District Court Commissioners, and the District Court. Everything is pretty much business as usual in the Maryland Courts, aside from many new measures that have been implemented to slow the spread of the virus while still maintaining a right and just legal system. Despite a recent spike in positive cases across the country, there currently are no plans to roll back any part of the reopening process for Maryland courts.
Many people are worried, anxious, and nervous about COVID-19. Having to go into court to resolve a legal issue is stressful enough on its own, and now citizens also have an additional concern about their health and safety. During the initial waves of COVID-19, many cases were being heard remotely, and the number and types of cases being heard in person were greatly limited. With the courts being opened to full capacity, it is the responsibility of Maryland's Judiciary to ensure the health and wellbeing of anyone who enters the building.
Maryland Judiciary's Administrative Office of the Courts has put quite a few rules in place for the safety of those who come into the building and have also added several further measures to help in putting the mind of their patrons at ease. Your lawyer also may be able to add some further insight on what to expect when you have to go to court in Maryland during the time of COVID-19.
Just like everywhere else in the state of Maryland, masks and social distancing will be required and enforced. You must wear a mask in all indoor businesses and public facilities if you are in Maryland, and the courts are no different. This can be any non-medical mask or face covering. WBAL reports that if you do not have a mask, one can be provided for you by the court upon your arrival. Those involved directly in trials, such as witnesses, will be given clear masks. You can also choose to wear a mask and face shield, as many employees will be doing the same.
Seats in the courts will be blocked off and spaced out to enforce proper social distancing and give much-needed space to those in the building. Staff must also comply with all of these rules. According to a video released by the courts, sanitation procedures will be put in place so that high-traffic surfaces and areas are being cleaned thoroughly. Door handles and elevator buttons will be sanitized frequently to help stop the spread of germs.
No-touch hand sanitizer stations have also been placed in various, easy to access spots in all courthouses. All jurors are required to maintain a distance of six feet between themselves and others at all times when inside the courthouse. The courts have also installed plexiglass screens in the courtrooms to add an extra layer of protection. Only three people are allowed on a court elevator at once, and there are stickers on the ground to guide riders as to where to stand to maximize social distancing efforts. Some stairwells and hallways will be marked for either one-way or two-way traffic to reduce congestion.
Upon your arrival, you may be asked to answer a quick COVID-19 questionnaire, that inquires if you or anyone in your household has experienced symptoms. If you have had any symptoms or been in contact with someone that has tested positive, you will not be able to enter any further. You may also be required to have your temperature taken upon entry with a no-contact thermometer. If you refuse to comply with these rules, you may be denied access to the courthouse. These are recommendations that come straight from the Center for Disease Control.
Baltimore City Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion told WBAL that smaller courtrooms will be used as jury deliberation rooms because the jury deliberation rooms are too small for proper social distancing. Case scheduling will also be staggered to prevent overcrowding, and the maximum capacity limits for rooms will be strictly enforced.
While it makes sense for many cases to be heard remotely in the midst of a pandemic, there are many instances where that is just not possible. Opening the court for jury trials was the final step that needed to be taken to ensure the right of a speedy trial and the right to be tried in front of a jury of their peers for anyone accused of a crime. Carrion reported to Fox News that there are countless incarcerated persons that have been waiting the entire lockdown for their jury trial, and we cannot let it go any further.
Wicomico County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy Sarbanes told ABC that their backlog is getting out of control. He speculated that it may be an entire year until they are fully caught up.
The Maryland courts are built up with compassionate, long-serving employees, and although the courts may not look or feel the same right now, these dedicated staff members are still doing their jobs each and every day. It is not strange to wonder what to expect when you visit a Maryland court. The Judiciary system creating strict guidelines and making these very clear to everyone allows you to be, at the very least, semi-prepared for your appearance in court. Remember, this is the first time anything like this has ever happened, and it is important to be patient and understanding if any issues do arise on the day you visit the court.
Whether you are in a remote hearing or trial, or physically in the courts, it is important that each person does their part in the fight against COVID-19. A third wave may be on the way, and some say we are already in it. Do whatever you can to protect yourself and others. Wear a mask. Social distance when possible. Wash your hands. And most importantly, stay safe.
To view local court information for the state of Maryland, click here.