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Getting back to business: Maine courts start planning 'new normal'

Other than for emergency situations, Maine's judicial system has basically hit the pause button.

MAINE, USA — The COVID-19 pandemic has tipped the scales of justice.

"The courts provide a necessary and vital service and having it curtailed involves delays which often denies justice and that is deeply disturbing to us all," Maine's acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead said.

Mead said they had to act quickly back in March for the safety of the public and the court's staff.

"It's been an exhausting eight weeks. We are reinventing what we do, rebuilding it and it's been quite an experience."

It's an experience that will continue to evolve as Maine's judicial system works to come up with a plan on how to move forward. 

"We need to plan now for the future this is where we put our heads up and look around and see where we're headed."

As a way to gather some insight into the planning process, Justice Mead morning hosted a virtual meeting Thursday morning with attorneys, prosecutors, judicial staff, sheriffs, and advocates who all had a chance to share their suggestions and advice.

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Juliet Holmes-Smith with the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project was on the call, and said: “I think we need some clear and simple easy to read guidelines court specific guidelines people without lawyers can understand."

Benjamin Jenkins, the litigations director with Maine Legal Services for the Elderly, pointed out that Maine's elderly are the most vulnerable population to COVID-19.

“Many if not most seniors are not going to be able to participate in many court proceedings,” Jenkins said.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese shared concerns about the courts' ventilation systems. She also talked about child support cases and the concern that some parents who can't attend the proceedings.

"The suggestion I was asked to convey is perhaps we use Google Meets as opposed to telephone hearings,” Marchese said.

Wayne Erkkinen, a Piscataquis County Commissioner, talked about safety.

“No one has mentioned security in the courthouse we should be checking people’s temperatures and as for jury's we should try to limit how many people can come into a courthouse at one time, which will be challenging," Erkkinen said.

Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck was a part of that call as well. He was thankful Justice Mead wanted to get as many parties as possible involved in the planning process. 

On the call, Sahrbeck talked about the importance of making sure all regions were considered pointing out what is done in Portland is different than in Aroostook or Washington County.

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"I think it's really important to make sure different regions are represented and act in whatever way is best for their legal communities."

Sahrbeck also says courts need to get back to business in whatever capacity they can to deal with an already large backlog of cases. 

"I think trails, especially jury trials are a long way off but grand jury needs to convene in order for the state to go forward with felony prosecutions."

By definition, courthouses and courtrooms are places people gather and in close quarters so obviously there is a lot to think about when it comes to making a plan to keep the public and court staff safe. 

And while there is no timetable for when courts will get back to business, one thing is clear, they won't look the same.

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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