Early in the spring of 2020, the United States recognized the novel coronavirus as a threat to the health and welfare of Americans. As the virus spread, the disease now known as COVID-19 began to appear, ultimately becoming the full-scale pandemic we are still experiencing today. The coronavirus set in motion the shutdown of American schools, churches, and businesses and has continued to interfere with every aspect of society—libraries and schools shut down and have only reopened in a limited capacity or have only offered remote learning opportunities; restaurants, grocery stores, and other retail establishments have had supply chains interrupted; and small businesses have curtailed actions and enterprises. Even court systems modified operations and ceased in-person trials.
Courts across the United States were forced to alter the manner in which they provide services and adjust legal practices due to stay-at-home orders and business closure orders issued by federal and state governments in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 malady. The Texas court system took swift action as soon as the state had its first report of a positive COVID-19 case on March 5, 2020—by March 12, courts across the state had suspended non-essential court hearings and jury trials and began investigating options for holding those suspended proceedings remotely. Less than one week later, on March 17, the state of Texas held its first fully virtual court hearing.
The most recent data available since Texas state courts closed in the spring shows only 20 jury trials were held between March 12th and August 28th, a period during which Texas courts normally would have averaged 4,450+ jury trials; at this time, the number of cases awaiting trial in Texas is in the thousands.
At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, jury trials were put on hold; but the Texas judiciary used the time to review the process and determine new processes and protocols for everything including jury selection, deliberations, and sentencing. Because of this immediate proactive response, the state was able to hold its first virtual jury trial via the ZOOM online platform on August 11, 2020. The state court system has begun to deal with the backlog of cases requiring jury trials by embracing the ZOOM platform as the pandemic persists.
The Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) published new, updated recommendations for holding Texas jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic in a report entitled “Jury Trials During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Observations and Recommendations”. The OCA report, published on August 28, 2020, presents a plan of action for resuming jury trials safely, to make sure that the right to trial by jury guaranteed in Texas’ constitutional bill of rights is upheld for everyone with a legal case. In-person jury trials still are not permitted in Texas (aside from a few exceptions), but that order expires on October 1st. At that time, only district courts, statutory county courts, and statutory probate courts will be able to hold in-person jury trials from October 1st to December 31st; all other courts will be clear to hold jury trials virtually during that time. In the meantime, the OCA’s recommendations have been received by the Texas Supreme Court for review and approval. Once approved, they will allow for more in-person jury trial dates to be scheduled gradually.
As the COVID-19 pandemic endures, the OCA will monitor Texas jury trial proceedings and work with the Texas state health department to address the situation as it continues to unfold. The OCA will provide further recommendations to the Texas Supreme Court as needed with a focus on the health and welfare of all involved in future jury trials and related legal proceedings.
Reeves Law, PLLC, located in Austin, Texas, handles a wide variety of legal matters. The competent team at Reeves Law is committed to providing the most professional legal service possible to every client to ensure the most favorable outcome possible in every case. If you require the services of an experienced attorney, or simply have questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic could impact your court case, do not hesitate to contact Reeves Law.