COVID-19 And The Maryland Courts, Part 6

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This is my sixth update to friends and neighbors regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect upon the administration of justice in Maryland, with a particular emphasis on our Anne Arundel County courts. As this article goes to print on January 18, we are regrettably into our 10th month of social distancing, sheltering in place and wondering when it all might end. All of us are itching for a return to normality.

The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University is reporting more than 87.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, with more than 1.8 million deaths. The United States has the largest number of known cases, exceeding 21.6 million cases and 366,434 deaths. Thankfully, we have seen over 9.6 million of our fellow Americans recover from the virus. Check out the data for yourself at www.coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. The data is updated daily at 8:00pm.

In Maryland, we have had 328,214 cases and 6,423 deaths. See www.coronavirus.maryland.gov. With 30,114 cases and 408 deaths, Anne Arundel County trails only Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City. Our children who attend public school have had a half year of online learning. Most private schools have figured out ways to have their students attend school in-person at least part time.

Jury trials resumed on October 5, with Phase V, the final phase in reopening the courthouses. This was short-lived, as an increase in cases required the courts to shut down again, effective November 16. Judges are creatively addressing the pandemic, as they consider conducting jury selection via Zoom. There will be no more cramming of jurors into small rooms to deliberate, as they will likely commandeer an entire courtroom, sending the judge and litigants elsewhere to await a ruling.

As of December 22, we have gone back to Phase II through at least March 14. Jury trials are suspended through April 23. According to Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Maryland Court of Appeals, “The surge in COVID-19 cases during November is expected to be sustained through the winter, making it necessary for the Maryland Judiciary to remain in Phase II of its operations plan.”

During Phase II, Maryland courts will hear certain cases remotely or in person, but there will be no jury trials until infection rates decline and we are able to move to Phase V. Courts will continue to expand the use of technology to provide for remote hearings, but this varies from court to court. For those attending proceedings at the courthouse, parties, witnesses and attorneys are subject to temperature checks and health screening. Masks must be worn at all times.

Over the summer, I was in court on several emergency matters. It is a challenge to question witnesses through a mask, and I’ve actually had to catch my breath at times. It’s also difficult to read an opposing party, counsel and judges through them. Facial expressions tell us much about the speaker’s veracity. We have also conducted depositions, crucial discovery tools involving extensive questioning, via Zoom.

In October, I tried an auto collision case in the Anne Arundel County District Court. The parties and their lawyers were present in the courtroom, all wearing masks. Eyewitnesses and experts testified telephonically. Despite some glitches with telephone lines being dropped and witnesses struggling with call-in instructions, we were able to conclude the case. Certainly, these witnesses were able to get more done during the day than had they been while waiting around the courthouse for their questioning on the stand. Having experts participate via telephone or teleconference has the potential to save clients’ money and everyone’s time.

At the firm, we are seeing certain clients in person, while masked and socially distanced. Most, however, prefer to confer over phone or via Zoom conferences. We are still able to come to the office because we are fortunate to be among the essential businesses “that support the judicial system.” Certain members of our staff remain teleworking, as they are able.

If you or a loved one have questions about the legal ramifications posed by the COVID-19 health crisis, you should consult with an attorney you can trust and who will assist you in making informed decisions.  David Diggs is your neighbor and legal counsel. If you need further information regarding this subject, contact The Law Office of David V. Diggs LLC, located at 8684 Veterans Highway, Suite 204, in Millersville. Call 410-244-1171 or email david@diggslaw.com.

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