Jury Trials During COVID-19. In the spring of 2020, the novel coronavirus began impacting the United States. Before long, it ensnared US citizens with COVID-19, as it had done in other countries around the world and established itself as a full-blown pandemic. It has continued to wreak havoc on every front, from schools to grocery stores, libraries to small businesses, hospitals to court systems.
Courts across the country checked and constrained operations and ceased in-person court hearings as stay-at-home orders and business closure orders were issued to help slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In Texas, the impact on the court system has required some quick pivoting. Texas courts began taking action quickly when the state had its first report of a positive COVID-19 case on March 5, 2020; and by March 12, they had delayed all non-essential court hearings, suspended jury trials, and started exploring virtual options for holding those suspended proceedings. The state of Texas held its first fully virtual court hearing on March 17.
Since COVID-19 first forced Texas state courts to close, there have been very few jury trials, the most recent data showing only 20 between March 12th and August 28th of this year. Currently, there are thousands of cases awaiting trial in Texas–in an average year, Texas courts could have held more than 5,000 jury trials during the period that the COVID-19 pandemic has been in the state. But the state court system made a major move towards putting a dent in that backlog by establishing and initiating virtual jury trials in addition to virtual hearings. While the coronavirus initially put jury trials on hold, the judicial branch of Texas began rethinking the process—from jury selection to deliberations to handing down verdicts and sentences—to come up with new protocols for operating during this unprecedented time, and the first pandemic jury trial case took place virtually via ZOOM on August 11, 2020.
On August 28, 2020, the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) issued its newest recommendations regarding jury trials during the COVID-19 pandemic. The OCA proposals are included in its published report entitled “Jury Trials During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Observations and Recommendations” which presents ideas as to how to resume trials in the safest way possible, ensuring that the provision in Texas’ constitutional bill of rights for the right to trial by jury is upheld. The Texas Supreme Court is now considering the OCA’s recommendations for approval. If approved, there will be a steady increase in jury trial dates and possibly more virtual options on the horizon. For now, however, jury trials across the state remain prohibited through October 1, barring a small number of “experimental” exceptions. And only district, statutory county, and statutory probate courts are clear to hold in-person jury trials between October 1 and December 31 at this time; but all other courts should hold jury trials virtually.
The OCA will continue to help monitor jury trial proceedings and communicate with the Texas state health department about the COVID-19 situation across the state. It reserves the option to provide more recommendations to the Texas Supreme Court as required to preserve the safety of all participants in future jury trials in Texas.
The professional legal team at Jarvis, Garcia, & Erskine Law is committed to fighting for our clients in court. We pride ourselves on our thorough, but compassionate approach to trial law. If you have questions about any legal matters, including how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact your court case, call Jarvis, Garcia, & Erskine Law today at 512-359-3030; or contact us online to schedule a free consultation for legal advice and information.