As the world awakens from its pandemic shutdown, reported COVID-19 cases appear to be on the uptick, making it more difficult for Texas judicial officials to predict when jury trials can resume and the courts can start functioning as before.
The Supreme Court of Texas has issued 17 emergency orders regarding the COVID-19 state of disaster, and with each order, dates to resume court activities have been postponed and more restrictions have been put in place.
Courts have been holding court proceedings via a teleconferencing app, with lawyers, defendants, judges and court personnel all logging in remotely from different locations. But those cases, at least in McLennan County’s two felony courts, have only involved a limited handful on one or two mornings a week, and the shutdown has taken a toll on court backlogs.
Senior judges around the state have been ordered to devise operating plans, with the assistance of public health officials, the Supreme Court and the Office of Court Administration, and to submit those plans to their respective presiding regional administrative judges for approval before in-person court proceedings can resume.
Judge Ralph Strother, McLennan County’s senior state district judge, submitted the county plan to Region 3 Administrative Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield, of Georgetown, on Thursday. The initial plan covers operating in-court proceedings for routine judicial matters, such as court hearings, pleas, sentencings and probation revocations. The county will have to submit a separate plan later to resume jury trials, which for now have been postponed at least until Aug. 1.
Court officials said this week that if coronavirus cases continue on the rise, that Aug. 1 date likely will be pushed back.
“Submitting this plan is just one of those hoops we have to jump through in order to operate in today’s environment,” Strother said. “I have said before I think a lot of it is overreaction and overdone out of pure fear, but we have complied with the requirements. We have not eradicated cancer. We have not eradicated heart disease. We can’t even cure the common cold. But yet we continue functioning, and that is my attitude about the whole thing. We do our jobs, take reasonable precautions and go on with life.”
Judge Matt Johnson said the operating plan significantly restricts court operations and requires all courts to stagger hearing times to limit the number of people in courtrooms and at the courthouse itself. The plan requires court personnel to have their temperatures taken daily, encourages them to wear masks, requires social distancing, limits the use of elevators and requires courthouse deputies to submit visitors to health screenings.
“Under the submitted operating plan, we will not be able to get back to normal operations anytime soon,” Johnson said. “I am greatly concerned about delaying trials for such an extended period of time and the impact the delays will have on court dockets.”
In preparation for resuming jury trials, Johnson, McLennan County District Clerk Jon Gimble and courthouse deputies toured the Waco Convention Center last month because it has more space and allows social distancing when large jury pools are summoned for trials. That venue remains a possibility as well as other locations, including The Phoenix Ballroom at 401 S. Third St., officials said.
Courthouse courtrooms and the larger courthouse annex visiting courtroom just do not have enough space to practice proper social distancing for a jury pool of 300 to 400 people, officials said.