Courts in Maine are rolling back the number of in-person hearings for criminal cases at a rapid clip because of the uptick in COVID 19 cases in the state.
The Supreme Judicial Court has issued a new order - JB-21-05 - that puts the default back to most hearings being conducted via video. Only hearings involving witnesses giving evidence will default to being in person, such as suppression hearings and trials. These are referred to as testimonial hearings.
Dispositional conferences - informal off-the-record chats between a judge, the prosecutor and a defense attorney - will be held remotely. Normally a person charged is expected to attend the court on those days in case there is a plea deal that they are willing to accept. Pleas will also default to remote proceedings, unless a request is made for it to be in the court. Family matters and protective custody hearings will also, mostly, default to being held via video. The Supreme Judicial Court’s order was only a day after a similar roll-back was announced for cases in Cumberland County. Those changes take effect from Monday, September 27.
It was only a month ago that the SJC reversed course on the mandate that all visitors to courts should wear masks. The latest changes have been adopted out of “renewed and ongoing concerns” about the safety of court staff and the public, according to the order - which takes effect on October 4, 2021. In Maine there is now another spike in overall numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. On Tuesday the number of deaths in the state from the virus topped a thousand since the pandemic began. Younger people are also a higher proportion of deaths than in previous spikes.