As Maryland courts gear up to resume jury trials on Oct. 5, state judiciary officials briefed state lawmakers on plans to bring juries back to the courtroom in a virtual meeting on Tuesday. They emphasized that even though courts will be returning to full operations, it won’t be business as usual.
To enter a state courthouse, visitors will be required to wear a mask at all times, answer a series of COVID-19 screening questions, have their temperature taken and maintain social distancing while inside the facility. Prospective jurors also won’t be squeezed into crowded courtrooms when summoned for duty — instead, they may be asked to report to a volunteer fire company’s social hall, a high school gymnasium or, if they’re from Baltimore County, the Maryland State Fairground’s Cow Palace.
“The days of packing jurors in jury boxes across the state, and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a jury box are over for now,” said Sheila Tillerson Adams, administrative judge for Prince George’s County.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought the criminal justice system to a halt in Maryland, where jury trials have been suspended since March. To prepare for their return, Tillerson Adams chaired a workgroup of judges, clerks, jury commissioners and court administrators who drew up a series of safety guidelines.
With 24 circuit courts across the state, each varying in size and layout, she she recognized that the specifics of plans would vary by jurisdiction. However, she said each procedure will require all jurors to wear a mask at all times and undergo temperature checks. Jurors will also be screened for the virus before they enter a courthouse, and will have their service rescheduled if they are sick, have symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, she said.
Courts will adopt varying protocols in enforcing social distancing during “voir dire” — the process by which judges question prospective jurors to assemble a jury. Some courts will stagger jury panels to bring only a few prospective jurors into the courthouse at a time and others will use technology to assist in the process, she said.
In Prince George’s County, for instance, jurors summoned for civil cases will participate in the voir dire process on their electronic devices at home. Those selected will be asked to report to the courthouse the next day for trial. For criminal cases, Tillerson Adams explained, prospective jurors will assemble in three large courtrooms and will be questioned simultaneously by the judge.
Baltimore City, as well as Montgomery, Harford and Howard counties, have also all “reimagined” the spaces within their courthouses, and are moving forward with plans to use remote options for some jury selection, said Laura Ripken, Anne Arundel County’s administrative judge.
Meanwhile, in Anne Arundel County, the circuit court’s library will be used as a socially distant jury selection area and a space in the county’s community college might be set aside for jury selection for civil trials, Ripken said. Garrett County will be using a high school’s gymnasium for jury selection and Baltimore County is considering making use of the sprawling Cow Palace, located on the state fairgrounds in Lutherville-Timonium.
Besides the changes made to the voir dire process, judges said courtrooms will be outfitted with wipes, hand sanitizer, Plexiglass structures and remote communication devices to allow attorneys to speak with justices without needing to approach the bench. Harford’s top judge also said last week that residents should expect more people to be called for jury duty, as courts anticipate more people to defer service due to safety concerns.
Baltimore Del. Luke Clippinger, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said he has heard from constituents who are concerned what that will mean for older people and those with preexisting conditions. For instance, would someone who is currently undergoing chemotherapy, he asked, have to report to jury duty?
In response, Ripken said all jurisdictions are prepared to be flexible.
“Certainly, it is a case-by-case basis, but I am 100% sure that in the scenario that you described, that individual would certainly be excused from jury service, and it would be rescheduled to a time after the emergency, when it would be safe for that person to return," she said.
Del. David Moon, who said he’s heard some concern that judges may not be “consistent fans of masks and other protocols." It would “certainly put folks in an awkward position, I think, who are not the judge in that scenario," Moon added.
Both Ripken and Mary Ellen Barbera, chief judge for the Maryland Court of Appeals, acknowledged that they had dealt with judges who weren’t following COVID-19 safety procedures. Ripken encouraged community members to raise the issue with the court’s administrative judge should they see a judge who isn’t following COVID-19 safety protocols. She added that sheriffs are also prepared to address any issues that arise with mask wearing.
The Maryland courts still have a long road in front of them as operations rumble back into motion, Barbera said. But, under the guidance of public health experts, she said, they will keep moving forward.
“The people of Maryland can depend on access to justice,” she said. “We will get through this, all of us ... because we must do it for the people of Maryland.”