Remote Court Hearings Likely Here to Stay: Texas Judicial Council Will Make Request to Lawmakers
By Angela Morris
Virtual court hearings could be here to stay if a Texas Judicial Council resolution passed Thursday finds success with lawmakers and judicial leaders.
The Texas Supreme Court has passed COVID-19 emergency orders that allowed courts across the Lone Star State to use videoconferencing to conduct court hearings and even virtual jury trials. But those emergency orders rely upon Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration of a state of emergency because of the pandemic.
But when the governor’s COVID-19 emergency declaration expires, it would mean that courts can no longer use Zoom, explained Judge Ed Spillane, the chairman of the Public Trust and Confidence Committee of the judicial council, which is the policymaking body of the Texas Judiciary.
“These remote proceedings may have helpful benefits to courts, post-pandemic, in terms of allowing access to the courts,” said Spillane, the presiding municipal court judge in College Station. “These hearings will never replace in-person proceedings—and they shouldn’t—but in terms of access to justice, accessibility, efficiency, we would like to have the ability in certain situations to be able to use the remote software.”
Texas judges have held more than 450,000 hearings with 1.45 million participants during the pandemic from March to September, said the public trust and confidence committee’s report and recommendations. There are now almost 1,200 YouTube channels for Texas courts, it added.
“Not only did judges use the tools made available to them to continue providing access to justice during the pandemic, they found the tools had significant advantages over in-person proceedings in certain types of cases and hearings,” the report said.
Judges report that litigants participate more during Zoom hearings because using the platform is easy—all they have to do is log on to their computer or mobile device. The report said judges also report that litigants, lawyers and judges are saving money by not having to travel to and from court. Also, the demand for remote court interpreters has increased by 50% between March and August, compared to the same time period in 2019, the report said.
Lawyers also think positively about remote court. A survey of 3,000 Texas lawyers in June 2020 said that 93% of respondents have a positive or neutral impression of their remote hearings. Although 44% of respondents said remote hearings are worse than in-person hearings, there were still 73% who said the remote hearings were effective, the report said.
The judicial council approved the committee’s recommendation to ask the Texas Legislature and the Texas Supreme Court to remove barriers for courts to keep using remote court proceedings and court innovations after COVID-19 passes.
The report explained, “Any statutory or rule barriers to holding remote proceedings outside a disaster declaration, should be removed.”