ELKTON - The Cecil County Circuit Courthouse and the Cecil County District Courthouse will be "restricted to emergency operations" and closed to the general public - with limited exceptions - until April 3 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to a statewide directive signed by Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals Mary Ellen Barbera.
"We are trying to do as much as we can to protect our court staff and the public from the risk of exposure," Matthew Barrett, administrator of Cecil County Circuit Court, told the Cecil Whig on Thursday morning.
To that end, all criminal and civil jury trials and court trials that had been scheduled to occur during that specified time period have been postponed, reported Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes, noting that those cases will be rescheduled.
The same restriction applies to Cecil County District Court.
Access to the courthouse also will be restricted, according to Barrett.
Those allowed in the courthouse will be lawyers - but only ones who have scheduled courtroom business on that particular day - parties to courtroom cases scheduled to be heard that day and credentialed members of the media, but only if they are there to look up records or to observe proceedings, he listed.
Although petite jurors are not reporting to the courthouse for duty - they serve on criminal and civil trials - the 23 members of the current Cecil County grand jury still are reporting for duty at this point, according to Barrett. The grand jury, which meets in closed sessions typically held every other Wednesday, determines if criminal suspects should be indicted and, if so, on which charges, after prosecutors present their cases.
"The grand jury was here yesterday (Wednesday)," Barrett noted.
Beyond that, however, "We are permitted to handle only emergency matters," Baynes explained.
The list of emergency hearings allowed under the directive includes the following:
* Bail reviews and bench warrants. Bail review hearings typically are conducted remotely via closed-circuit television, in which each defendant at the Cecil County Detention Center appears on a television screen in the courtroom, where the assigned judge presides over the proceedings.
* Arraignments for detained defendants.
* Juvenile detention hearings
* Emergency mental health petitions
* Extradition cases
* Body attachments, which are the equivalent of bench warrants, but for civil cases instead of criminal cases.
* extreme risk protective order appeals
Also on the directive's emergency list are "quarantine and isolation petitions," which, for decades, have been matters rarely heard by the courts. But given the current situation with COVID-19, quarantine and isolation petitions could become more prevalent in the weeks to come.
"If someone is ordered to be quarantined (by the health department) and that person doesn't comply, there would be a proceeding to rule on the quarantine order," Baynes said, adding, "We haven't seen any yet, but we will hold them if necessary."
Under state law, a person issued a quarantine order from the health department can file a Circuit Court appeal, and then a hearing must be held within three days after that filing. Such a hearing would be held via closed-circuit television, conference call or some other remote way, to avoid contact with the petitioner who had been issued the quarantine order, Barrett explained.
(As of late Thursday afternoon, there had been no reported coronavirus cases in Cecil County.)
Meanwhile, Cecil County District Court will handle the same type of emergency matters as Cecil County Circuit Court, in addition to "new extreme risk protective order petitions, new peace order petitions, applications for statement of charges, acceptance of bail bonds and bench warrant satisfactions," according to the directive.
Also included in the directive, all incumbent Maryland judges are now cross-designated to sit in any trial court in the state for the duration of the emergency.
Only "essential personnel" at the courthouses must report for work, according to the directive, which explains that employees in that category will be determined by "administrative judges, court administrators, clerks of courts, administrative clerks and administrative heads of units of the judiciary."
Barrett told the Cecil Whig that, along those lines, he and Clerk of the Court Charlene Notarcola have divided each of their staffs into three teams. One of Notarcola's teams reports to the courthouse for work each business day, while the other two work remotely from home, and Barrett's three teams function likewise.
Should a member of a team working in the courthouse get exposed to COVID-19 or test positive for it, all members of that squad would be sent home to self-quarantine and a second team would start working at the courthouse, Barrett said. The four at-home teams, two for Barrett and two for Notarcola, serve as backup to the present courthouse staff, he added.
"We have about 73 employees total. We have about 25 employees working in the courthouse now," Barrett said.
Notarcola supervises employees who work in several courthouse departments, including land records, civil, criminal, business licensing and marriage licensing. Barrett also is in charge of several areas, including the courtroom assignment office, juries, family services and adult drug court.
Cecil County State's Attorney James Dellmyer, whose office and staff are on the third floor of the Circuit Courthouse building, has established a similar team system for his personnel. Some prosecutors and support staff employees work at the courthouse each day, while others work remotely from home. The SAO has approximately 25 to 28 employees.
Although approximately two-thirds of the courthouse staffs aren't physically in the building each day, the work is still getting done - thanks largely to the fact that courthouse employees and lawyers have access to the court's online system, Baynes emphasized.
"They're still filing motions and pleadings electronically. We're still getting emails. It's still pretty much business as usual, except for what type of hearings we can hold," Baynes said. "It's not like they're sitting at home, watching Oprah. The work is definitely getting done. My law clerk, for example, has been sending my stuff all day."