Last Friday evening the Chief Judge of Maryland’s highest court issued an updated administrative order, which established a plan to reopen state courthouses this summer. The previous order stated that the courts would be closed to the public through Friday June 5, but offered little guidance to how the courts would reopen that following Monday. It was no surprise that a more comprehensive order would be forthcoming, and the only thing left in doubt was the timing. Reopening in so called “phases” has become a sign of the times, and the courts are adopting this approach moving forward. There will five phases according to the order, and they will gradually go into effect over the course of the next five months.
According to the order we will be in phase 1 until Friday June 5 at the close of business. Phase 1 has been officially in effect since March 16, which seems like ages ago. With respect to criminal cases, both the circuit and district courts of Maryland have been closed except for emergency hearings such as bail reviews, habeas corpus motions and emergency evaluation petitions. Domestic violence protective orders and peace orders have been heard by district court commissioners, but there have been no final evidentiary hearings set in front of judges. Phase 2 will begin at the close of business on June 5, and last through July 19. Courts will still be closed to the public during phase 2, but the circuit courts will begin to hear guilty pleas and deferred sentencing matters, so defendants will be permitted inside the courts. It does not appear that the courts will hear any pleas that may result in a defendant being sentenced to immediate incarceration during phase 2. The juvenile courts will still operate more or less on an emergency basis, and will not hear reverse waivers or dispositions that require testimony. The district courts will begin to hear guilty pleas in phase 2 with no incarceration or deferred incarceration, and also preliminary hearings with agreed resolutions. The overall theme of phase 2 is beginning to move cases that do not require witness testimony or that will result in immediate incarceration.
Monday July 20 appears to be a big day in the Maryland court system, as phase 3 will begin and the courthouses and the clerk’s offices will officially be open to the public. They courts are still working on exact guidelines to limit capacity and promote social distancing, so it won’t simply be a free for all at 8:30 on the 20th. The circuit courts will begin to hear cases with witness testimony including bench trials, pleas, violation of probation hearings, evidentiary motions and jury trial prayer status conferences. The juvenile courts will begin to hear waiver hearings, dispositions and adjudications, and the district court will be permitted to conduct trials for incarcerated defendants and defendants facing DUI charges and charges involving violent acts such as assault in the second degree. Phase 4 will begin on August 31, and mark the beginning of the minor traffic dockets in district court, as well as all other non-jury trials. Things are scheduled to completely return to normal on October 5, when phase 5 begins and the circuit court resumes jury trials.