Some court functions resume, but no jury trials until early October

Some court functions resume, but no jury trials until early October

Many district court hearings done virtually since beginning of the month

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With jury trials not expected to resume until October in Montgomery County Circuit Court due to the COVID-19 health crisis, judges, attorneys and their clients are adjusting to the new normal.

After courts across Maryland largely shut down in mid-March to due to the health crisis, Montgomery County’s courts started gradually reopening on June 8.

This is the first of five stages of reopening, according to a June 6 order from Administrative Judge Robert Greenberg. It includes certain types of emergency hearings, such as:

  • Those involving peace orders, protective orders and temporary restraining orders in civil cases.
  • Bail reviews and arraignments for detainees
  • Criminal competency hearings
  • Emergency guardianship hearings
  • Domestic violence protective order hearings
  • Juvenile detention hearings

According to the order, courts won’t be fully operational until the fifth phase of the reopening, which starts Oct. 5. Criminal jury trials that were already on the docket beyond that date will remain, while earlier trials will be rescheduled. Postponed civil jury trials will start in December.

As of early May, there were more than 13,000 hearings and 1,600 trials that had to be rescheduled, Court Administrator Judy Rupp told the County Council at the time.

Rupp said in an interview on Monday that she didn’t have the latest statistics on the court’s backlog.

She said court staff members have been working with judges and parties in each case to determine what needs to be rescheduled.

“Oftentimes, things no longer need to go forward. Really, it has been so fluid. We’ve had our judges call parties and attorneys to see if proceedings needed to be rescheduled,” she said.

In an email on Tuesday, Rupp wrote that about 80% of jury trials that had been on the docket during the pandemic have been rescheduled for dates after Oct. 5.

“Many cases were resolved by way of guilty pleas during the court closure. Over the last three months, our court held remote guilty pleas and bond-reduction hearings from the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, in an effort to keep the jail population below normal levels, while still protecting public safety,” she wrote.

Rupp wrote that the county has reduced its jail population by several hundred inmates.

Despite the five-phase reopening plan for the court buildings, social distancing restrictions will continue indefinitely, she wrote.

“Because we are being told that a ‘second wave’ of infections may likely occur in the fall, we will be especially vigilant to protect the health and safety of the employees and users of this courthouse before proceeding to the next scheduled phase,” she wrote.

Rupp added that in the months between the start of the pandemic and the first reopening of the court system, judges held bond reviews, emergency hearings, juvenile cases and uncontested divorce hearings. Drug and Mental Health courts held virtual hearings.

Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the State’s Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email Wednesday that attorneys have been meeting with victims, witnesses and police remotely throughout the health crisis.

“The partial reopening of the courts earlier this month is helping us transition to the new normal but it still presents challenges. We are meeting these challenges head on with safety and adherence to all the CDC guidelines for social distancing,” he wrote.

A spreadsheet provided to Bethesda Beat from the State’s Attorney’s Office shows more than 900 trials that need to be rescheduled.

Kush Arora, a Rockville attorney with the firm Price Benowitz, said in an interview on Tuesday that in the last couple of weeks, the district court has heard a number of cases virtually for misdemeanor offenses such as shoplifting and DUI.

“It hasn’t lightened the burden of the caseload, but it has resolved many, many cases, which for me is helpful,” Arora said.

Arora said the court has also conducted bond-review hearings virtually to transfer defendants who are in custody to other forms of confinement, such as house arrest or GPS monitoring.

Arora said none of the more than a dozen felony jury cases that he was involved in at the start of the pandemic have moved forward. He said he understands the need to suspend jury trials as a health precaution and to maintain social distancing.

“As you can imagine, a jury trial is sort of unique, in that there needs to be people that report to jury duty,” he said. “There need to be people that report to a courtroom to then be prospective jurors, or seated as jurors potentially. And then in the courtroom, they need to be listening to the evidence and deliberating in a very small room for hours or several days.”

Trish Weaver, a Bethesda attorney with the firm Paley Rothman who handles mainly civil cases, said many cases are being resolved through virtual mediation sessions.

Weaver, a former head of the county’s bar association in 2010-11, said mediation typically involves a combination of having the parties and their attorneys talk with each other in the same room, as well as private meetings between attorneys and their clients. She said that even in normal times, mediation is often commonly used, particularly in business law.

“Even absent the pandemic, it’s part and parcel. It should be a tool in every litigator’s toolbox,” she said.

Weaver is also a court-appointed mediator in Montgomery County, and said she has volunteered to take on family law cases on a pro bono basis.

Mediation as a virtual experience, Weaver said, has worked well for the most part and has saved her and her colleagues several trips to the courthouse.

“It’s been pretty easy to replicate the in-office mediation experience online through a virtual platform,” she said.

Weaver said the only complication with the virtual experience so far was during one mediation, when a party wasn’t able to activate the video feature on Zoom, although the audio still worked.

“I do think there is something to be said for being able to look someone in the eye and really see them,” she said.

The court system has added an electronic filing procedure by email during the pandemic, Weaver said. However there are certain limitations, such as not being able to file more than 25 pages at a time and having to make copies of files in-person at the courthouse.

A permanent system for electronic filing called Maryland Electronic Courts is scheduled to be implemented in the county next year, Weaver said. Rupp said this is scheduled for May 2021.

Weaver said that when courts fully reopen in October, criminal cases will likely be among the first to be rescheduled.

“Criminal cases are gonna have the highest priority, because defendants have the right to a speedy trial. And then family law cases, because they involve custody of children and other issues. … They, I think, are prioritized over civil matters,” she said.

Rupp said she thinks civil jury trials probably won’t occur until 2021.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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