The Texas Supreme Court issued its 36th Emergency Order since the pandemic began one year ago. It permitted live Texas jury trials to proceed if safeguards are in place.
Governor Abbott is fully reopening Texas businesses and withdrawing the mask mandate tomorrow.
Trying to achieve a happy medium
The Supreme Court is apparently seeking a balance between a return to normalcy and the safety of judges, attorneys, jurors, parties, and witnesses participating in Texas jury trials.
Inoculations are being quickly administered, many people are still wearing masks and socially distancing, and the coronavirus is fortunately moderating. That is great news.
However, with contagious variants spreading and Spring Break happening, a surge has been predicted.
The Court implied that live proceedings should wait until June 1st.
Requirements to conduct Texas jury trials
The required protocols include
- approval from the local administrative district judge;
- ruling on objections made to live jury proceedings within seven days of the commencement of trial;
- assurance that no participants have tested positive or exhibited any symptoms for COVID-19 within the previous 10 days or been exposed to the coronavirus within the last 14 days;
- notification of potential jurors of the precautions that are being taken to protect their health and safety;
- receipt of questionnaires to prospective jurors asking about their health and possible recent exposure; and
- removal of jurors who confirm their infection or exposure.
Which courts can and cannot hold live trials and appellate hearings
The Court continued to allow district and county courts to modify their procedures and deadlines and procedures through June 1st.
Further, the Supreme Court will not allow in-person arguments through the duration of its 2020-21 docket.
Three justices dissented to the new order.
Texas courts valiantly pivot to remote proceedings
The commitment of Texas judges and attorneys to continue to work during this crisis has been remarkable.
Texas reported its first COVID-19 case on March 5, 2020. Within one week the courts had immediately implemented virtual hearings by telephone or videoconference.
Some courts even set up YouTube channels enabling the public to watch their proceedings.
An estimated one million virtual hearings have been conducted in the past year.
Pre-trial hearings, appeals, depositions, mediations, and appeals have continued.
There have been several notable trial results, including last week’s stunning $2.1 billion verdict against Intel last week in a patent infringement trial in federal court in Waco.
With few Texas jury trials during past year, the growing dockets will take a long time to resolve.
According to the Office of Court Administration’s statistics, there are about 600,000 active cases just in the district courts across the state. A tiny fraction were disposed of last year by non-jury (852) or jury trials (130).
The stoppage has especially a problem in the criminal courts due to their speedy trial requirements. The additional deaths and infections from the more crowded jails have been called an urgent threat.
Effectively trying a case to a jury has also prevented civil cases from being fairly resolved. Virtual trials have problems.
Litigants have had to choose between remote trials or waiting for the courts to reopen. Cases sometimes are not resolved until the juries are being empaneled or testimony begins.
What happens next
It is not known which counties and courts can achieve the safety requirements and proceed with in-person proceedings.
The major counties have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars retrofitting their courtrooms with plastic barriers and other distancing devices.
It is also not clear whether jurors will appear for jury duty. Appearance rates were already low.
For now, courts will continue to recalibrate so they can return to relative normalcy. Hopefully, the pandemic will be subdued more quickly than expected and Texas jury trials can safely resume.
For more on this subject:
Will coronavirus affect Texas car accidents? – March 10, 2020 blog post