Standing in a courtroom with plexiglass partitions, hand sanitizer and hand wipes, Montgomery County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Robert Greenberg reflected on weeks of preparations so jury trials could resume.
“I’m within 16 months of retirement and I never thought this would be how I closed out my legal career,” he said on Friday.
Greenberg has been working with the court’s other judges and staff for the past 45 to 60 days to ready the court for its first jury trials since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March. The resumption of the trials, which happened Monday morning, was the fifth and final stage of reopening that Montgomery County’s court system has gone through since June.
An employee in Greenberg’s chamber confirmed Monday that trials resumed as scheduled.
Courtrooms where trials will take place have been retrofitted with plexiglass around the bench, between seats where the attorneys sit, and inside the jury box. One courtroom had seats for six jurors inside the box, spaced six feet apart or more. The other six jurors’ seats were in the general viewing area or off to the side, to ensure proper distancing.
At the defense and prosecution tables on Friday were Clorox wipes and tissues, along with a headset. Greenberg explained that the rechargeable headsets are for “bench conferences” – when attorneys for both parties hold confidential conversations with the judge, with background noise turned on so the public doesn’t hear.
The headsets, Greenberg said, will allow bench conferences to happen without the need for the attorneys to stand near each other or the judge.
Each juror will be given a notepad and pencil to keep in a plastic bag at an assigned seat throughout the trial, Greenberg said.
“We’ve done everything we can to minimize common touching of items [and] to keep everyone at least 6 feet away. I feel very comfortable that people will get the sense that we are looking out for them and we want to keep them safe,” he said.
The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, jury commissioner, clerks and others have been meeting to discuss the details.
State’s Attorney John McCarthy said in an interview last week that on Sept. 29, his office and everyone involved in the reopening process had a 90-minute meeting to discuss final preparations. The discussions have been about details as small as when it might be acceptable for someone in court to lower or remove their mask.
“We’ve gotten down to discussing protocols on what happens if you have a case where somebody says ‘do you see the person who you signed the contract with? Do you see the person who saw you?’ You have to identify somebody, but they’re masked. For a brief period of time, that person might have to lower their mask to allow them to be identified properly…,” he said.
On Friday, the county jury lounge had 57 numbered chairs for prospective jurors to sit in a room with a capacity of 400.
Normally, a few hundred prospective jurors could come to Circuit Court on a given day. But McCarthy said the initial trials that will be held will be for “small strike” juries, which are those that are for “less complicated matters” with fewer witnesses.
McCarthy said witnesses will enter the courtroom on a staggered basis, and will wait in separate rooms. The jury, he said, will likely stay in the same place for the entire trial.
“We are attempting, as much as possible, to minimize the movement of the jury within the building. It’s very likely that the courtroom will become the deliberation room. And they’ll just stay right in that same room, socially distanced,” he said.
Because most of the public viewing area of courtrooms will be used to space the jury out, viewing stations have been set up in adjacent hallways with video and audio feeds for the public, McCarthy said.
McCarthy said organizations such as the American Bar Association, as well as other circuit court judges in Maryland, have come up with best practices for ensuring courtroom safety during the pandemic. Additionally, he said, grand jury proceedings have gone smoothly in Montgomery County for the past two months.
“We bring 23 people in to handle those grand jury matters, and we’ve been doing that in a socially distant fashion, and we’ve had absolutely no problem with that,” he said.
Before the courts began reopening in the county, the State’s Attorney’s Office had a backlog of about 900 cases. McCarthy said that number has shrunk to around 300.
“Part of that backlog was that you couldn’t even plead cases out. So there were 900 cases that were potentially set up for trial. But the reality is that in Montgomery County …. Typically, we try something between 8 and 10% of our cases. The other 90% are resolved,” he said.
McCarthy added that one tricky aspect of holding trials during the pandemic will be balancing the need for safety with constitutional rights of the accused. The Constitution, he noted, grants “confrontation rights” to defendants, which mean that they have the right to confront their accusers and cross-examine them in-person.
“Confrontation normally means physical presence. Now, can physical presence be excused under some limited circumstances? The answer is yes,” if all parties agree, he said.
Since the pandemic started, anyone entering court buildings must pass a temperature check and answer a questionnaire asking if they have had symptoms of the virus or been exposed to anyone with it. McCarthy said there will also be a similar process for prospective jurors that screens out those who might have been exposed to the virus or are in a high-risk population.
Greenberg said Friday that he feels confident about the safety of the Circuit Court building, but understands the anxiety those entering a public building might have.
“Given the times we’re in, I know people are going to be a little bit skittish, but I think when they see what we’re doing here, they’ll feel much better about the jury experience,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org