ELLSWORTH — Barring any fresh COVID-19 outbreaks, the Maine Judicial Branch is on track to handle more matters of the courts starting Monday, June 15.
For the first time since the shutdown in March due to the pandemic, courthouses across the state opened to the public starting June 1. The hours are currently 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. If all goes well, courthouses will stay open until 4:30 p.m. starting Sept. 7.
Anyone entering a courthouse must have a face covering and use hand sanitizer available at the entrance upon entering and leaving the building, according to a reopening plan issued earlier this month.
In that plan, the judicial branch outlined five phases for reopening the courts and getting jury trials, grand juries and numerous other matters back on schedule.
Since the courts restricted operations and closed courthouses in March, judges and attorneys have only been handling time-sensitive matters such as protection from abuse hearings, bail hearings and emergency guardianships via videoconference or telephone.
That’s scheduled to slowly change over the course of the summer, according to the reopening plan.
Phase 2 runs from June 15 to July 2.
In Phase 3, which runs from July 6 to July 31, grand juries may be convened.
Once the courts enter Phase 4, scheduled for Aug. 3 to Sept. 4, the courts may schedule and hold “in-person hearings in all case types, subject to the availability of judicial resources and the need to address priority cases,” the plan stated.
However, video and teleconferences are still the “strongly preferred medium for all proceedings” into Phase 4, the judicial branch said.
Jury trials may be held during the final phase of reopening, scheduled to begin Sept. 7 with no end date.
Locally, there are numerous cases pending trial, including that of Savannah Smith of Bucksport, who was indicted on a charge of murder last April in connection with the 2017 death of 2-year-old Kloe Hawksley.
Also pending before the court is the case in connection with the murder of Sally Shaw in Cherryfield in July 2017. The Maine Attorney General’s Office indicted Carine “Terror” Reeves, 40, of Queens, N.Y., on one count of murder in September 2017. The case involving Reeves’ co-defendant, Quaneysha Greeley, is also still pending.
The Judicial Branch did not have answers before press time about how jury trials would be held while maintaining the social distancing measures outlined by the court or when matters such as the violations bureau, small claims, foreclosures or disclosure hearings would begin.
The reopening plan states that social distancing measures must be observed in each courthouse.
“No more than 10 people, including court personnel, shall be present in a courtroom at any one time,” the plan states. “No more than 50 people per courthouse floor may be present in common areas at any one time. These numbers may be reduced depending on the need for social distancing at a specific courthouse or on a specific floor of a courthouse. To the extent possible, court events will be scheduled at staggered times to prevent large numbers of people from entering and exiting a courthouse at any given time.”
Be aware that before you enter a courthouse, you may be asked questions about any recent travel or contact with anyone who has traveled outside the state as well as questions about symptoms associated with the COVID-19 virus.
Court personnel may ask you to sign a written attestation confirming that you do not have any of the symptoms.