Covid-19 commissioners (copy)

Judge Ralph Strother (center) attends a McLennan County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday at the courthouse. The audience observed social distancing but commissioners themselves did not.

With COVID-19 measures wreaking havoc with court dates and jury trials in McLennan County, 19th State District Court Judge Ralph Strother said this week he is concerned about the constitutional rights of the accused.

“The question is this: Does a medical emergency trump constitutional rights?” said Strother, a presiding judge since 1999, who addressed McLennan County commissioners during meetings Monday and Tuesday. “I just heard about this, and I’m still digesting all the ramifications. But if this drags on much longer, I could see issues arising. Defendants could claim they’re being denied the right to have a trial by jury, or they’re being denied the right to have a speedy trial. The claims would not all be valid, but I could see them arise.”

The county has postponed until April 2 all jury trials to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus. State District 54 Judge Matt Johnson canceled all hearings in his courtroom scheduled for Monday, and Strother conducted only five sentencing hearings to keep traffic and human contact in his courtroom to a minimum while maintaining at least partial efforts to reduce the county jail population. Holding up to 20 sentencing hearings daily is not unusual, courthouse observers have said.

Johnson said he is trying to keep his docket moving and still be in compliance with directives from the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals to limit numbers gathered in courtrooms to 10 if possible. Countywide directives prohibit all nonessential gatherings.

Johnson said he has scheduled plea, sentencing and writ hearings for Thursday and Friday, with emphasis on county jail inmates whose cases can be disposed of based on time served, allowing their release, and those who will be placed on probation and released.

McLennan County Executive Assistant District Attorney Tom Needham told commissioners Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency declaration affords local district attorney’s offices leeway in procedural matters.

“I realize the situation we’re in is serious and requires a lot of sober reflection on what we do,” Strother said in an interview after the meeting. “I don’t want to minimize the danger being imposed on citizens. But I also have some questions about the societal effects of acting like lemmings, the long-term effects of one domino dropping, then another. The civil libertarian in me wonders how far the government can go in limiting association, assembly and the right of trial by jury, that sort of thing. Short term, we can adjust and deal with just about anything we face. But if this is as apocalyptical as some are suggesting, I see serious ramifications for a free people.”

McLennan County this week joined Waco in further tightening restrictions on public movement, businesses that can remain open and which employees are permitted to work away from their homes.

“Personally, I’m considered essential to a government operation,” Strother said. “But I have a grandson who just lost his job as a welder due to government action. He falls into the category of non-essential personnel. The government telling some people they can keep their jobs while telling others they can’t … I can think of many implications for our republic.”

During his address to commissioners, Strother also referenced damage these restrictions could cause to the United States.

“Our economy is the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said to commissioners. “If we don’t have a goose, we don’t have any gold either. Do we want to follow the Pied Piper, follow the lemmings off the cliff? There are implications we as a society need to consider.”

Strother said he has canceled activities in his courtroom until Friday, “but beyond that, I will continue to operate my docket on a daily basis.”

County commissioners last week and Monday approved allowing County Judge Scott Felton to declare emergencies with wording drafted by Waco attorney Mike Dixon, who serves as the county’s legal counsel. Felton, asked about Strother’s comments, said there have been no formal issues raised “in regard to the constitutionality of our order relative to the courts.”

The emergency meeting Monday in the commissioners’ courtroom attracted about 20 to 25 people, including reporters, commissioners themselves, administrative staffers, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office personnel and elected officials, including District Attorney Barry Johnson. Waco and McLennan County have taken action to prohibit most gatherings, though there are exceptions that would include commissioners’ court.

On Tuesday, about 25 people again attended the morning commissioners’ meeting, at which time Strother said he and his office stand ready to conduct business if it gets necessary cooperation from other “moving parts,” including the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s office, which moves prisoners from jail to the courthouse for arraignments and sentencing.

Johnson said his office is working rotating shifts to reduce virus exposure and public contact but told commissioners he will do whatever is necessary to make the process run smoothly.

“But I do intend to protect my staff,” Johnson said.

Sheriff’s Office representatives said they have started bringing only two inmates at a time to court from jail, also to reduce contact and exposure. Family members legally can attend proceedings, which involve attorneys, the court coordinator, the presiding judge and others, they said.

Johnson, Strother, McLennan County Jail Administrator Ricky Armstrong and District Clerk Jon Gimble agreed to meet later Tuesday to discuss solutions that might include increased use of remote videoconferencing.

Felton said governments can do only so much to battle the spread of the conronavirus, that individuals must take on personal responsibility.

“If you go out, don’t bunch up,” Felton said, offering an example.

But Strother suggested Monday that that horse has left the barn.

“My wife went to an H-E-B store after the city came out with its decree,” Strother said by phone Monday afternoon. “You talk about violating social distancing. Lines were out every door. This is the kind of impact this thing can have that nobody anticipates. People were up against each other.”

Tribune-Herald staff writer Tommy Witherspoon contributed to this report.

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