The coronavirus has slowed Maryland’s judicial process at every level. One year after the pandemic began dominating every aspect of society, the wheels of justice are beginning to pick up speed again.
Judicial officials in Calvert County have precautions in place for a gradual return to normalcy.
Jury trials remain suspended across the state until the end of April. That’s when Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera’s suspension of those trials will end.
Mark S. Chandlee, Calvert County Circuit Court administrative judge, told Southern Maryland News that “even in the best of times, jurors are reluctant.” The potential juror is usually an employed individual with family responsibilities who, by being a member of a defendant’s peer group, is trusted with the responsibility of rendering a fair verdict, he said.
The concerns of the coronavirus add more angst to the process.
Of the court system’s operations during the COVID-19 crisis, Chandlee declared, “We’ve been efficient so far. But this [jury selection amid the coronavirus] is going to have an impact. The process is going to be slower.”
Chandlee said his plan is to “over-schedule jury trials” with “older cases and criminal cases getting priority.”
The parties involved in a case — defense and prosecuting attorneys and the defendant in a criminal trial, and plaintiff and defendant and their respective attorneys in a civil trial — select the jury. In a criminal case a jury of 12 with two alternates is selected. A jury of six with at least one alternate is required for a civil case trial.
To accommodate the large pool of potential jurors and adhere to social distancing mandates, Calvert’s circuit court will be selecting panels at the Calvert County Fairgrounds in Barstow.
“The main building can accommodate approximately 75 potential jurors,” said Burgess Wood, court administrator. A makeshift courtroom has been set up in the main room, which is 5,600 square feet, giving the judge a place to preside and the other court officials — the clerk and reporter — the same workspace that’s available in a courtroom.
Wood said many of Maryland’s smaller jurisdictions are also utilizing off-site locations, such as local firehouses, in preparation for jury selections.
According to Wood, the satellite location will be run exactly like the courthouse. Courthouse deputies will conduct COVID-19 screenings — temperature checks and questionnaires — at the front entrance. Attorneys and clients will be able to meet within outbuildings in proximity to the main hall.
Once a jury has been selected, members of that jury must then report to the county courthouse for the actual trial.
The courtrooms have plastic partitions in front of the bench, litigants’ tables and between each juror’s chair. Jury deliberations for criminal cases will be conducted in another, smaller courtroom. Juries for civil cases will be deliberating in the courthouse’s jury rooms.
Chandlee told Southern Maryland News that court officials have previously selected a jury at the fairgrounds. The judge commended the local fair board for its accommodations as well as the assistance from county government.
“The county has been trying to get other locations for us, just in case,” Chandlee said.
According to the circuit court clerk’s office’s website, once a year jurors are selected at random from a combination of the county’s voter registration list, the list of the county’s licensed drivers and persons holding state identification cards issued by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
“From that pool of potential jurors, approximately 1,800 qualified individuals will be randomly selected to actually serve as petit jurors and 46 as grand jurors,” the website stated.
Also, according to the clerk’s office, there is a nominal monetary perk to serving on a jury.
“Jurors, both grand and petit, are paid $20 per day for their expenses,” court officials stated. “Jurors are given a certificate of jury service, which indicates they were in court on a particular day and how much they were paid, to provide to their employer if required. Jury pay may be considered taxable income. However, it may be deducted as expense money. Consult your tax advisor to be sure.”