COVID Effects On Jury Trial. As the 2020 winter melted into spring, the health and welfare of Americans was coldly undermined by a virus that had already begun wreaking havoc in other countries around the world. The novel coronavirus spread quickly across the United States, and the world-wide pandemic lingers still today. The pandemic sent the U.S. headlong into a societal shutdown, shuttering everything from schools to churches to businesses to government operations, and continues to interfere with day-to-day life. One area uniquely impacted by COVID-19 has been court systems, which were forced to modify operations and halt most in-person court proceedings.
Courts across the United States had to adjust the way they managed their dockets as stay-at-home orders and business closure orders were issued by federal and state governments, in hopes of slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. In Texas, the state court system monitored the situation and was able to act quickly to make adjustments once reports of positive COVID-19 began. The first reported case came on March 5, 2020, and by March 12, courts across Texas halted non-essential court hearings and jury trials, postponing them to a date to be determined. The courts then began researching ways to use technology to hold those proceedings remotely. Less than one week later, on March 17, the State of Texas held its first fully virtual court hearing via the ZOOM online platform.
While hearings able to conduct some hearings virtually, the courts had yet to solve the issue of how to proceed with jury trials. The right to trial by jury for a criminal defendant is guaranteed in Texas’ constitutional bill of rights. Making sure that every party who wanted to exercise their right, and get the chance they deserve under the law to have a jury hear their case, has proven to be a daunting task amid the health and safety concerns.
The most recent data available since the spring shows only 20 jury trials were held between March 12th and August 28th in Texas state courts. The average number of jury trials for a period of that length before the pandemic was over 4,450. Right now, the number of cases awaiting trial in Texas is in the thousands due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic disrupted the court system in Texas, jury trials were suspended; but the Texas judiciary used the pause to examine the overall process for conducting jury trials and to establish new protocols for jury selection, deliberations, and sentencing. The state was able to hold its first virtual jury trial successfully on August 11th. The Texas court system has started dealing with the backlog of cases building up by embracing the use of the ZOOM platform to handle day-to-day operations. It appears that courts will continue to hold such proceedings until the pandemic wanes and in-person trials can resume safely and efficiently.
Despite these concerns, some Harris County courts are pushing for jury trials sooner than the parties involved would like. The first criminal jury trial since the shutdown began was scheduled to begin on September 14th despite the defendant’s request for a continuance. Jury selection would have been conducted at NRG Arena, but it seems the judge granted the defendant’s request at the last minute.
The Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) recently published updated recommendations for holding Texas jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. The OCA report entitled “Jury Trials During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Observations and Recommendations” was published on August 28, 2020, and presents terms for resuming jury trials as the pandemic persists. The OCA’s recommendations are currently being reviewed by the Texas Supreme Court. Once the high court approves the recommendations, more in-person jury trial dates could be scheduled until the backlog has been fully addressed. While Texas courts await this decision, in-person jury trials remain suspended in Texas (except in a few instances). But that requirement will end on October 1st. Then from October 1st to December 31st, only district courts, statutory county courts, and statutory probate courts will be allowed to hold in-person jury trials. All other courts only will be allowed to hold jury trials virtually during that timeframe.
As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the OCA continues toward long-term solutions. The OCA plans to monitor Texas jury trial proceedings and work with the Texas state health department considering the continued impacts of the pandemic. It plans to offer more recommendations to the Texas Supreme Court, based on the health and welfare needs of those parties who will be present for jury trials.
The Law Office of Collin Evans is a Houston-based law practice that can assist you with all your legal needs. Collin Evans is an attorney with over a decade of experience who is ready to answer any questions you have about your case. For a free consultation regarding legal counsel in the Harris County, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County or Galveston County areas, contact Collin Evans online or by phone at 713-225-0650.