COVID-19 UPDATE: Jury Trials Resume, with Precautions in Place, as Maryland Courts Enter Phase V

On September 29, 2020, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera announced in a video message that Maryland’s courts will enter Phase V, the final phase of their progressive reopening plan, on this Monday, October 5. The Maryland Judiciary, Judge Barbera explained, has moved “deliberately and carefully” through phased resumption of courthouse operations, monitoring statewide COVID-19 positivity rates and implementing health protocols urged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) as it did so. Phase V, Judge Barbera stated, marks resumption of “full operations,” including resumption of jury trials in the circuit courts.

While courts become “fully operational” under Phase V, Judge Barbera emphasized that it is not back to “business as usual.” COVID-19 remains an ongoing public health emergency and, Judge Barbera stated, enhanced health and safety protocols will remain in place in Maryland courthouses to protect litigants and courthouse personnel until the CDC and Maryland Department of Health report that it is safe to do otherwise. To the extent matters in Phase V can be handled remotely, the Court’s Administrative Orders encourage courts and litigants to do so. But whether and what events will proceed remotely will be left to the discretion of individual courts and judges.

Those litigants, lawyers, and jurors who do enter Maryland’s courthouses in Phase V will encounter noticeable changes. All persons entering a courthouse or remote court site, including courthouse employees, are required to: (1) wear a mask or other face covering; (2) answer (either verbally or in writing) a set of screening questions designed to check for COVID-19-related symptoms; (3) submit to a no-contact temperature check; and (4) practice social distancing. The Maryland Judiciary has implemented heightened cleaning and sanitation efforts statewide, with a focus on sanitizing and disinfecting high contact, frequently touched courthouse surfaces.

The physical courthouse environment will be different, too. Because Maryland’s twenty-four circuit courthouses are diverse in building age, size, and layout, jury and courtroom environments are likely to differ by county. The Court of Appeals wisely left it to each circuit court to develop a safety plan that works best for their building. That said, visitors can expect to see common changes to courtrooms statewide, including plexiglass shields separating judges, lawyers, jurors, and court personnel, socially distanced seating in jury assembly and deliberation rooms and courtrooms, and new courtroom layouts. Limits have been placed on the number of people who can ride courthouse elevators together. Hand sanitizer stations will be prevalent.

A number of courthouses, faced with inadequate square footage in existing jury selection rooms, will rely on off-site premises for that task. Wicomico County will conduct jury selection in the county Civic Center. In Baltimore County, jury selection is set to occur at the cow palace at the County Fairgrounds. Baltimore City faced a similar problem with jury deliberation rooms. The existing deliberation rooms, attached directly to courtrooms, proved too small to allow for adequate social distancing. Jurors will instead deliberate in the courthouse’s smaller courtrooms. In Washington County, instead of the usual practice of jurors retiring to a deliberation room, jurors will stay put and deliberate in the courtroom. The judge, attorneys, and parties will leave.

Other common-sense modifications are being made. In Wicomico County, the ubiquitous pitchers of water on counsel tables and jury deliberation rooms will be replaced with bottled water. Baltimore City and Wicomico County intend to supply clear masks to trial participants, including jurors and witnesses, given the importance of being able to see, and gauge, a person’s facial expressions. Case start times will be staggered throughout the day to facilitate social distancing.

Maryland joins other states, including Delaware and Ohio, in returning to full operations and resuming jury trials statewide. (A full list, updated on a rolling basis, is available through the National Center for State Courts’ website.) Jury trials in the District of Columbia’s Superior Court remain on hold. In Virginia, individual circuit courts are required to submit plans for restarting jury trials to the state Supreme Court, which are then subject to approval by a panel of judges. Alexandria, Fairfax, and Norfolk Counties, among others, have received clearance to proceed.

For courthouse users in Maryland who might feel nervous about appearing in-person as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the fall, Judge Barbera offered reassurance, stating that the Maryland Judiciary “will continue to safeguard, as much as [it] reasonably can, the health of the public, including jurors, Judiciary personnel, and justice partners.” Jurors called to appear for jury duty are encouraged to view the Judiciary’s video, titled “Jury Duty COVID-19 Safety Precautions.” Concerned counsel, witnesses, and parties would be well encouraged to do the same.

Heather L. Williams is a Partner in our Maryland office.