Court Via YouTube? Amid COVID-19 Closures, Texas Judges Ponder Public Access
As courts across Texas move many proceedings to telephone and video conferencing, there’s a discussion behind the scenes about how to keep the courts open to the public.
Some essential proceedings are moving forward as normal. But in nonessential matters, which will either be postponed or handled through electronic hearings, questions are arising about how the public can find out about those hearings, and how they can dial in to listen.
“There’s a general provision in the Texas Constitution that says Texas courts should be open. There’s nothing specific in the U.S. Constitution, but it’s really understood that court proceedings need to be open to the public, unless there’s a reason to close them,” said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.
Hecht said the high court is working to put out rules to ensure that electronic hearings remain open.
“I’m confident that there will be really good solutions. It will improve court transparency, even going forward, after the virus is gone,” he said.
David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said he’s testing a video conferencing system that would allow a judge to create a link for litigants, attorneys, and others, and also to stream that conference to the public on the internet.
To stream proceedings to the public, Texas courts would create YouTube channels or Facebook Live channels, Slayton said.
The OCA already entered a purchase order to license the video conferencing software and make it available to all courts statewide. It may take some time to create logon credentials for all of the judges, and teach them to use the technology and to stream videos online. But Slayton said his office is working on tutorials already.
“If this works out well, it may be something we continue using, after the end of the crisis,” he said, noting that it could help litigants by cutting out time off from work and travel expenses to go to court in person.
“It’s more efficient for attorneys, because they can be doing other work, while they are waiting,” he added.
Until that video conference system rolls out, courts in Texas are still holding telephone and video conferences with the judges sitting in the courtroom, and the parties and attorneys calling in, or joining via other video conference services.
Judge Michael Gomez of the 129th District Court in Houston, who is also Harris County’s local administrative judge, said that the public is still allowed to come sit in his courtroom to listen in on telephone or video conference hearings.
“They’d have free and open access to the courts, just like they always do,” he said. “As far as I know, there currently aren’t any procedures that limit people’s access to the courts right now.”
Judge Ron Rangel of San Antonio’s 379th District Court, who is Bexar County’s local administrative judge, said that his courthouse has eight courtrooms that are wired for telephone and video conferences. The courts will post notices of the electronic hearings on online dockets, and the public can attend in-person, he said.
The coronavirus is altering our society in many ways, and the justice system won’t escape that fact.
Rangel said, “Our court system is going to profoundly change as a result of what we are going through.”