The Maine Judicial Branch will start allowing more people in courtrooms next week, but still does not have a reliable way for the public to view virtual proceedings.

In March, the state paused all but the most urgent hearings in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, the courts began a phased reopening, which has allowed some cases to move forward. Most hearings are still held by video or telephone conference, and courtrooms have been capped at 10 people. Next week, that capacity will increase to up to 50 people.

But more than three months after the advent of virtual hearings, the courts still have not shared any information about how the public or the media can observe them.

Amy Quinlan, director of communications for the Maine courts, said those logistics are still under consideration. She said the hearings themselves are a blend of virtual and in-person participants, creating a challenge for livestreaming.

“I’ve been involved in conversations about how to accommodate access every single day for the last couple months,” Quinlan said. “I appreciate that from the outside it doesn’t look like we’re moving very quickly, but I can tell you from an internal perspective, we are moving at a breakneck speed.”

Quinlan said she expects more guidance for the public later this month. The state is in the process of purchasing Zoom licenses for the courts and setting the procedures for video conferencing.

In the meantime, Quinlan said the increased capacity could help because more people can watch the proceedings on a screen in the courtroom, even if some participants are there by video conference. But the cap for some smaller rooms will be less than 50 because social distancing is still required.

Sen. Mike Carpenter, an attorney and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the pandemic has made every branch of government think differently about public access and virtual tools.

“Public access in matters that are not confidential is a real problem,” said Carpenter, D-Houlton. “I think if nothing else, this pandemic should be a wake-up call for not only the Judicial Branch, but also for other parts of the government.”

For a recent sentencing in a murder case, the staff at the Cumberland County Courthouse set up viewing areas in another courtroom and in a conference room used for jury deliberations. Anyone who wanted to observe could go into those rooms to watch a livestream, but that arrangement created additional responsibilities for clerks and security officers.

“We’re trying to do that in proceedings where there is a lot of interest,” Quinlan said. “We can’t do that for every hearing because it’s very resource-intensive.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is tracking public access to judicial proceedings and so far has found that the response has been varied.

Federal courts have allowed video and telephone conferencing, and their national governing body has explicitly stated that the press and the public should be able to observe those proceedings. The two federal courts in Maine – Portland and Bangor – have held virtual proceedings for weeks. Anyone who wants to observe a hearing should contact the clerk’s office for call-in information, and instructions are posted clearly on the court website.

State courts are less consistent. In Maine, Quinlan said the technology itself has been a major challenge. The state still relies heavily on manual processes, and a long-awaited electronic filing system won’t go live until the fall. The Judicial Branch recently published a schedule for case types in each courthouse – for example, arraignments for people in custody will take place Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons next week for the Cumberland County Courthouse. But Quinlan said posting daily schedules with more information about which cases will be heard is too cumbersome.

“I know that would seem to be an easy thing to do, but it is not,” she said. “To put those daily schedules on the website would be very difficult, so we’re trying to come up with something useful.”

Beyond the courtroom capacity, the other major change for July is that courts may schedule proceedings with grand juries, which has not happened since March. Those groups convene in private and hand up indictments on felony charges.

Otherwise, the courts are still operating on a limited basis. Most evictions, foreclosures and small claims hearings are now postponed. Jury trials will not be scheduled. Everyone who enters the courts will be screened and required to wear a face covering. Video and telephone hearings are still preferred.

Carpenter said he feels the Judicial Branch has managed the demands of the pandemic well, but the coming months will be a challenge for all parties in the legal system.

“It’s going to take a long time to sort it all out,” Carpenter said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.