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State, federal courts in Maryland to reopen to the public, resume some trials next month

State and federal courts in Maryland will reopen to the public next month and resume some trials, in light of improving coronavirus conditions, after most regular activities were suspended amid rising COVID-19 cases in the fall.

While federal hearings still will be held virtually on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the presiding judge, some in-person jury trials may resume “on or after March 15,” with “appropriate safety precautions taken in all instances,” U.S. Chief District Judge James K. Bredar ordered this week.

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“Staff will return from telework to accommodate these in-court proceedings,” Bredar wrote. “Members of the public will again be admitted into the Courthouses to observe and participate in proceedings on a limited basis, and public facing administrative activities will be resumed ‘in-person’ under the direction of, and to the extent authorized by, court supervisors.”

State courts will reopen to the public March 15 and resume non-jury trials and contested criminal, civil, family and juvenile hearings, “with continued restrictions to limit the concentration of individuals and allow social distancing,” Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbara ordered.

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Full operations, including jury trials, will resume in state courts, beginning April 26 with continued health and safety restrictions, Barbara wrote. After halting jury trials, she further restricted courtroom operations amid calls from the Public Defender to postpone more court appearances last fall.

Judges are instructed to consider matters “that can be addressed without a hearing” and those that can be heard remotely “with access to the public as justice requires,” Barbara wrote. Courts will notify all participants if a matter will go forward, she wrote.

The statewide seven-day average testing positivity rate has dropped below 5%, and although the rates in some counties remain higher, “all jurisdictions demonstrate a clear downward trend sustained over several weeks,” Bredar wrote in his order. He noted that some jurisdictions have begun easing restrictions on businesses.

Maryland’s two federal courthouses, located in Baltimore and Greenbelt, will begin reopening to the public at 8:30 a.m. March 1, resuming regular weekday business hours. No members of the public, attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses or other court users have been allowed to enter any federal courthouse in the state without prior permission since Nov. 16.

Bredar’s order said “rigorous measures designed to protect health and safety” — such as mandatory masking, social distancing and strict occupancy limits in courtrooms, restrooms and elevators — will remain in place. The court also will continue “liberal use of plexiglass barriers” and the use of “listen/talk” electronic communication devices in courtrooms, he wrote.

Temperature checks upon entry will continue, and anyone with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher or other COVID-19 symptoms will be turned away, as will those who have traveled internationally in the previous two weeks.

People who have been released from a “federal, state or local jail, prison or other correctional institution” within 14 days may not enter the courthouses, except those being fitted with a location monitoring device or ordered for another reason, Bredar wrote. Correctional facilities have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Those who are scheduled or required to appear in federal court or at the probation office, who cannot attend because of these restrictions, are instructed to call first.

If they are represented by an attorney, they should notify the attorney. If attorneys cannot appear, the attorneys are asked to contact the judge’s chambers directly. Self-represented litigants should call the clerk’s office at 410-962-3626. Jurors should contact the jury department at 410-962-3090.

Those who cannot attend a scheduled meeting with a pretrial services officer should call 410-962-4820 for Baltimore and 301-344-0375 for Greenbelt. Those scheduled to meet with a probation officer should call 410-962-4740 for Baltimore and 301-344-0510 for Greenbelt.

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