Five Phases to Reopening Maryland’s Courts

As I’m sure you know, the courts in Maryland have been essentially closed during the corona virus pandemic.  The Courts are going to be reopening in five phases.  And luckily, we are about to enter Phase II.  Phase I ended on June 5, 2020.  So, one could say it has been effectively closed and that there are actually four phases.  Stakeholders like the Maryland State Bar Association have worked with the Judiciary to formulate the plan for resuming normal court operations.  Here’s what that will look like.

Phase I:  March 16, 2020 – June 5, 2020

Phase I began as we closed down in response to the pandemic.  For the most part, the court system closed, especially for routine matters.  However, certain emergency and urgent matters proceeded, either in person or remotely.  For example, the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s highest court continued to hear certain election law matters, petitions for Writs of Mandamus, certified questions of law and quarantine and isolation matters.  The circuit courts continued to hear mostly criminal matters, such as bail reviews and bench warrants, arraignments juvenile detention hearings.  They also heard some other emergency matters, such as emergency guardianship petitions.  Courthouses were staffed with only one fourth of the normal staff it takes for smooth court operations.

Phase II:  June 5, 2020 at 5:00 P.M. – July 19, 2020 

The courthouse doors will still be closed at the beginning of Phase II, but the courts will begin bringing back staff – up to about half of the normal number.  People will continue to be required to wear masks, and they will have temperature checks before being admitted to the courthouses.   

Starting on Monday, June 8 there will still be limited access to the courthouse building, itself, in the Montgomery County Circuit Court.  There will be a limit of 4 people on an elevator.  Stairways will be one way.  There are still going to be a lot of issues that judges hear that will be done remotely.

In addition to the Phase I matters, the courts will begin hearing some civil matters, such as scheduling conferences, temporary restraining orders, emergency evaluation petitions, and matters that can be handled remotely or without testimony or both.

On the criminal side, the courts will now be hearing such matters as bail reviews and reconsiderations, arraignments for detained defendants and certain plea agreements.  Family law matters will include scheduling conferences, status conferences, and uncontested divorces and other uncontested family law matters, as well as certain domestic violence issues.

In the District Court, Phase II will see a return of hearing certain bail reviews and reconsiderations, certain guilty pleas, among other matters.  And on the civil side, the district court will begin to hear certain domestic violence matters and temporary restraining orders.  The district court will also begin to hear certain landlord/tenant matters, such as emergency breach of lease cases involving threats or injury to people or property and emergency wrongful detainer actions.

Phase III:  July 20, 2020 – August 30, 2020

The courts will begin to schedule and hear a broader range of matters during Phase III.  Circuit courts will begin to hear motions requiring witness testimony and will begin conducting settlement hearings for the first time.  The courts will also begin to hear criminal motions and violation of probation hearings and non-jury trials for the first time.   Family law courts will begin conducting non-emergency guardianship hearings, adoptions, and child support matters for the first time.  In the district court, trials for incarcerated defendants will begin on the criminal side.  Courts will also begin holding certain preliminary hearings.  In landlord’/tenant matters, the district court will begin to hold hearings in rent escrow actions, provided local health departments are able to provide inspections.  The will also star holding hearings for tenants holding over beyond their leases, among other matters.  The district court will also begin scheduling matters for Phase IV.

Phase IV:  August 31, 2020 – October 4, 2020

In Phase IV, courts will then resume non-jury trials and contested hearings in criminal, civil, family, and juvenile matters.  Courts will schedule and hold a broader range of matters, with limited in-person services to be offered as determined by the administrative judge and posted electronically and in the court facility.  To the extent that Phase IV matters may be handled remotely, courts are encouraged to do so.  Landlord/tenant cases will also start for failure to pay rent. 

Phase V:  Beginning October 5, 2020

Finally, Phase V is when the courts anticipate full operations, including the beginning of jury trials.  However, there will have been a huge backlog, so things will likely be delayed deep into 2021. 

Conclusion

This timeline depends on there not being a second surge.  As with every other aspect of life, the Maryland courts’ timeline depends on not having a second surge, and we don’t know whether that will happen or what it will look like.  If you are interested in reading the Maryland courts’ plan, go here.  You can also read the order from Chief Judge Barbera.

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