Senior Judge Urges Maryland Courts To Keep Virtual Access Beyond Pandemic

In the Washington Post

After commissioning a task force to evaluate the pros and cons of virtual court proceedings, the Maryland judiciary has announced that courtrooms across the state will be encouraged to continue using remote access technology beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

The task force recommended that the state’s courts continue offering audio or video access for most procedural matters, including criminal sentencings, bond and bail review hearings, and pretrial conferences. The task force advised against holding criminal and civil jury trials virtually, in part because it would be too difficult for a “finder of fact” to adequately assess the credibility of evidence remotely.

“The pandemic was a serious crisis that challenged us in ways we could not previously have anticipated,” Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Joseph M. Getty said in a statement with the release of the recommendations. “In adapting to that crisis, personnel throughout the Judiciary employed new technologies, developed new processes, and found new ways to keep the doors of courthouses open — literally and virtually — across the state.”

Two years ago, as the novel coronavirus shut down courts across the state, the judiciary was forced to adopt and implement Zoom and other technologies to uphold due process for defendants and ensure the public’s right to access the courts. Remote court proceedings — and remote access for the public — have shifted with the rise and fall of coronavirus case counts in the region, as have in-person proceedings and jury trials.

But as the vaccinated population continues to grow and more institutions inch closer to pre-pandemic norms, participants in the criminal justice system have been debating what technological advancements should remain. The conversations have reached Annapolis, where lawmakers have spent weeks debating a host of bills related to judicial transparency, courtroom technology and universal remote access for the public to view, but not participate, in court proceedings.

For months, the panel on post-covid-19 judicial operations, created by Getty, also has been soliciting input from lawyers, judges, courthouse staffers and the public on what has worked, what hasn’t and how to proceed. The task force wrote a 45-page report and issued recommendations on topics including the continued use of virtual court proceedings.

The panel, chaired by Court of Special Appeals Chief Judge Matthew Fader, cited multiple ways in which virtual court proceedings have benefited participants. Litigants and defendants were able to participate in their court hearings without being forced to take time off work, commute or find transportation to the courthouse, or pay for child care. Witnesses and experts who lived far away were able to testify virtually, without incurring additional cost. Complainants in domestic violence and abuse cases were not required to be in the same room as those they were accusing of harming them.

But they also recognized the challenges of remote hearings: the way the digital divide can exacerbate inequities, create barriers to access for those representing themselves, and limit access for those with inconsistent Internet connections.

In late March, the Judicial Council, the governance body of the Maryland Judiciary, accepted the task force’s recommendations. Ultimately, though, the decision to hold court proceedings virtually rests with the individual judge overseeing a case.

Members of the public have also taken advantage of the remote proceedings. Throughout the pandemic, the organization Court Watch PG, which assembles volunteers to observe daily bail review hearings and other court hearings in Prince George’s County, has had an explosion of participation — in large part because members could watch court proceedings from home.

Concerned about losing the ability to observe court proceedings virtually, the group partnered with other advocacy organizations to craft a bill for this year’s legislative session that would make remote access for the public a right under the law. The bill, which had sponsors in both chambers of the state legislature, did not make it out of either judiciary committee. But leaders of Court Watch PG have said they will keep working and will propose the legislation again next year. They plan to hold a news conference Monday to continue advocating for court transparency and hope to be joined by the co-sponsors of their bill and other advocates.

Court Watch PG director Carmen Johnson said in a statement that the group was “pleased” that the judiciary has “recognized the continued need for remote proceedings.”

“However, we still believe that guaranteeing Zoom access to the public is of the utmost importance going forward,” Johnson said, “and we hope that they continue to uphold their commitment to public access by implementing this as a practice across courtrooms in Maryland.”

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