Some Maine courts have pushed off jury trials and canceled in-person hearings as COVID-19 cases in Maine continue to surge.

The disruption is adding to a mounting backlog of criminal cases with a return to normal operations at least months away.

Courts shut down for all but emergency business in March, then moved most hearings to telephone and video platforms.

Over the summer, federal and state courts brought grand juries back, started to schedule some hearings and resumed walk-in arraignments. Augusta and Bangor even hosted jury trials this fall, and other courts had hoped to do so this month or next.

But a spike in cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks forced judges to rethink those plans. Federal courts in Bangor and Portland canceled in-person hearings through next March. At least five counties – Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec, Oxford and York – put grand juries on hold. Cumberland and York counties postponed what would have been their first trials in months. Walk-in arraignments in at least those two counties are also canceled through the end of the year. 

Those steps will likely worsen a pileup of open cases but keep foot traffic down in courthouses.

“The challenge is, as it has always been, to balance the safety of the public and our people with the critical need to keep the doors of justice open to the maximum degree possible,” Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said in a presentation to the Maine State Bar Association this month.

Some courthouses, like the Capital Judicial Center in Augusta last month, have shut down for one day or several because an employee contracted COVID-19. Others have not; the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland remained open after four people in the district attorney’s office tested positive. A spokeswoman for the Maine Judicial Branch said judges made those decisions based on “a variety of factors,” including the extent of the exposure and the number of employees available to work in the building.

Some attorneys were so concerned about the pandemic’s trend that they stopped taking shifts as the lawyer of the day, the defense attorney designated to advise people who come to court for their first appearances or arraignments on new criminal charges.

Until recently, attorney Robert Ruffner said the only space for confidential meetings with those clients at the Cumberland County Courthouse was a room too small for social distancing. The courts identified larger spaces not long before those hearings were canceled.

“It just got to the point where I don’t want to be the person who gets it and doesn’t know it and passes it along to other clients, to friends and family,” said Ruffner, who took himself off the list for those walk-in hearings in November. “It just didn’t seem to be a responsible choice to be going into that situation.”

Robert LeBrasseur also decided to take his name off the lawyer-of-the day list. He recently had to quarantine after he was exposed to the virus at the Portland courthouse.

“I can’t take that risk for my kids,” LeBrasseur said.

Attorney Devens Hamlen was still acting as lawyer of the day until those walk-in hearings got canceled. But he was nervous about getting sick, in part because he and many other defense attorneys in Maine do not have paid sick time.

“I’ve been getting tested every two weeks because up until this point, we had so much interaction with the public,” he said.

The Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, which maintains that roster, did not return a request for more information about how many attorneys have stopped taking those hearings. Julie Howard, the manager of operations for courts in Cumberland and York counties, said enough lawyers were still willing to act as the lawyer of the day. But the clerks faced a different scheduling challenge for those hearings.

“When COVID first hit, the police were very cooperative in curtailing summoning for a while,” Mead, the acting chief justice, told the Maine State Bar Association. “They really held back and kept the numbers down and made it very manageable. They are back to summonsing at pre-COVID levels. The fact is that too many people are being summonsed for the same time and date. We can’t get them into the courthouses, and the clerks are doing double duty, sending them away and creating new arraignment dates.”

Mead recounted that clerks at an Ellsworth courthouse actually set up a card table outside to intercept people who hadn’t been given notice about their changed hearing dates. State court officials said they are working on changes to that scheduling system.

“The clerks have been working with what we have,” Beth Maddus, the director of court operations, said.

Now, a hiatus on walk-in arraignments and other precautions will likely add to the backlog of adult criminal cases. Earlier this month, the number of pending criminal cases for adults was greater than 21,500. Last year, that number was around 13,100.

“The clerks are scheduling things as quickly as they can, as safely as they can, in whatever method they are able to,” Maddus said. “I think everyone is doing the best they can. It’s a situation we never imagined.”

Hamlen said most of his clients are not in jail while they wait for their cases to proceed. While the delays cause stress, he said they have generally been understanding about video hearings and other changes.

“It’s their safety, too,” Hamlen said.

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