Virtual Trials in Maryland?

As courts around the country struggle to get back to the business of hearing and deciding cases, many states have recently adopted plans to have virtual jury trials. This raises the possibility that Maryland might follow suit and adopt its own plan for virtual jury trials. In this post, we will speculate on the likelihood of Maryland adopting virtual jury service for civil trials.

COVID-19 Impact on the Maryland Judiciary

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and forcibly changed almost every level of government administration and services in Maryland and around the country. This seismic disturbance has had a disproportionately harsh impact on civil court proceedings.

The reason the flow of civil cases has been so heavily disrupted is that civil jury trials have been effectively frozen for almost a year. On March 12, 2020, the Maryland Judiciary suspended all jury trials. Although this was initially intended to last just a few weeks, jury trials remained frozen until early October when the court started to resume normal operations. Unfortunately, that return to judicial normalcy barely lasted a month. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Maryland Chief Judge Barbera announced that jury trials were being suspended again.

Jury proceedings are currently scheduled to resume in April, but it would require some irrational optimism to convince yourself that this will actually happen as planned. In any event, the net result right now is that we haven’t seen a civil jury trial in almost a full year. The result is a massive backlog that is putting a massive strain on the judiciary and litigants alike.

States are Now Adopting “Virtual Jury Trial” Program

After months of continuous lockdowns, court systems in States across the country have found themselves in a similar situation to Maryland. Pre-trial discovery, motions, hearings, and other aspects of civil litigation have found ways to soldier on in a virtual, remote world, but jury trials have been the last part of the judicial process to go virtual. This appears to be changing now.

Over the last 2 months a growing number of states have started conducting “virtual” jury trials in which jurors participate remotely via video conference technology (e.g., Zoom or Google Meets). Texas became the first state to hold a virtual jury trial last year and virtual trials are regularly getting scheduled and streamed online in several Texas venues. So far, the virtual juries in Texas have been limited to criminal cases.

Last month, New Jersey rolled out the first statewide virtual jury trial programs for civil cases. The New Jersey virtual civil jury trial program is the product of months of thought and planning. Judicial administrators in NJ have high hopes that taking jury proceedings virtual will help to alleviate the massive backlog of civil cases that they are currently facing. The first round of virtual jury trials is just now getting underway in civil cases in New Jersey.

The New Jersey program could end up being a model for other states, including Maryland, to follow. New York is already considering its own virtual jury trial program based on the New Jersey system. New York only had 9 jury trials in 2020, a staggering number for a state that usually has thousands.

Federal Courts Holding Virtual Jury Trials

The virtual jury trial idea is gathering even more steam in the federal court system. The Western District of Washington was the first U.S. District Court to hold a virtual jury trial last September. Since then, at least 4 other Federal District Courts (Middle District of Florida; District of Minnesota; District of Rhode Island; District of Kansas)  have followed suit and started conducting their own virtual jury trials.

Are Virtual Jury Trials Coming to Maryland?

As of right now, there is no indication that the Maryland Judiciary is seriously considering its own virtual jury trials in civil or criminal cases. There has been no official comment on the subject of virtual jury trials in Maryland. However, we do have the benefit of regular announcements and updates from Chief Judge Barbera on the evolving status of Maryland court operations during the pandemic.

The sense I get from reading these updates and from other sources is that the Maryland Judiciary seems patiently committed to their “phased reopening” plan and optimistic about getting back to business soon.  At least publicly, Maryland judicial authorities seem optimistic that juries will be back in April. But if recent history is any indication, this could easily change.

The sad reality is that at this point, most casual observers would be genuinely surprised if jury trials actually resume in April as planned. In the meantime, if the virtual jury trial experiment in New Jersey yields positive results (or more importantly, positive publicity) it seems very possible that Maryland would quickly implement its own virtual jury trial program.   After all, Maryland has already been holding virtual hearings and even virtual bench trials in District Court. With the New Jersey model as an example, it seems like a very small leap for us to see our first virtual jury trial in Maryland.

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