CHESTERTOWN — Responding to a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide and in Maryland, the state judiciary has returned to phase three of its five-phased progressive reopening plan.
As of Monday, Nov. 16, all jury trials in Maryland — civil and criminal — are suspended through the end of the calendar year. Criminal jury trials will be rescheduled as soon as feasible beginning Jan. 4, 2021, though this is subject to change depending on the public health emergency.
Jury trials will not resume until the Maryland Judiciary is able to re-enter phase five.
Grand juries may continue and new grand juries may begin sitting at the discretion of the administrative judge.
Clerks offices in Maryland’s circuit courts and the District Court of Maryland will remain open to the public.
The Maryland Judiciary on Oct. 5 had resumed full operations under phase five, including jury trials, with health protocols in place statewide.
Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera announced the return to phase three on Nov. 12 when she issued five new administrative orders.
She said the decision to restrict operations was made after consultation with Maryland Department of Health and state judiciary leaders.
“The health and safety of the public, judges, and Judiciary staff remains a top priority, and we will continue to monitor the COVID-19 heath emergency and adjust Judiciary operations as necessary,” Barbera said in a news release.
“We will keep the public apprised of any changes in operations and ensure that as many of the core functions of the Judiciary will remain available to the extent the emergency conditions allow,” she added.
For Kent County, for the time being, more cases will be handled remotely using video technology and the number of people permitted in the courthouse will be limited, according to Judge Harris P. Murphy, the administrative judge for the Circuit Court for Kent County.
Kent had only one jury trial during the six weeks that the Maryland Judiciary was in phase five.
Nine more were scheduled before the end of the year, according to Murphy.
What turned out to be Kent’s only jury trial since the full reopening was in mid-October.
“It went very well,” said Murphy, who presided.
Due to the number of jurors required and the health screening and social distancing protocols that were put in place, jury selection took the better part of an entire day.
Voir dire — the preliminary examination of potential jurors by a judge and attorneys to gauge their qualification to serve in a particular case — was conducted in two groups, 40 in the morning and another 40 in the afternoon.
Then, from those who were not excused for cause or hardship, 35 were brought back the following day. A jury of 12 and one alternate was seated for the one-day trial.
Murphy said “comments from the jurors about the process was very positive.”
Phase three allows for civil, criminal, family, Child in Need of Assistance (CINA) and juvenile matters to be heard in circuit courts.
In the District Court of Maryland, case types being heard include criminal, traffic, civil, domestic violence, peace orders, Extreme Risk Protective Orders and most landlord-tenant cases with the exception of failure to pay rent cases.
Individuals who have business with the courts should check the Maryland Judiciary’s website, www.mdcourts.gov, or call the clerk’s office for information before arriving at a courthouse location.