Texas Chief Justice Says Some Courtrooms Should Stay Online After the Pandemic
For all its dangers and challenges, the pandemic has shown that Texas courts can conduct much business online — a practice that must continue long after the coronavirus is tamed, the head of the Texas Supreme Court said Tuesday.
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, delivering his biennial State of the Judiciary address, called on the Legislature to update laws to account for new technology and ensure that remote access to courtrooms will continue.
Online access is efficient, saving time formerly spent driving to court and waiting hours for a case to be called, and it has vastly improved public participation in the legal process, particularly by people limited by income, child care, transportation or job needs, he said.
“With remote proceedings, going to court is as easy as clicking on a link or dialing a number on a smartphone,” Hecht said. “We’ve watched participation rates in high-volume dockets like child custody and traffic cases flip from 80% no-shows to 80% appearances.”
There’s another advantage, he said: “You can watch remote proceedings on YouTube, giving the public a ringside seat in every courtroom, increasing transparency and accountability.”
Hecht urged the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 690 and House Bill 3611, saying they will “ensure that scores of statutes on the books, written without technology in mind, will not impede improved access and efficiency in the justice system.”
However, Hecht acknowledged, most felonies and complex civil matters require jury trials that can’t be handled remotely, leading to growing backlogs of cases that will take an estimated three years to work through.
“This is unacceptable, and I have asked the Legislature for increased funding for retired and former judges to help us move more quickly,” he said.
Hecht’s State of the Judiciary speech, usually delivered to a joint session of the Legislature, was instead streamed online in a nod to pandemic safety.
In his address, the chief justice also renewed his previous calls to reform the cash bail system, saying more than 83% of people in county jails are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty — a sharp increase from 32% in 1994.
“In many Texas courts, a criminal defendant too poor to afford cash bail remains in jail, even if charged with a minor, nonviolent offense and no threat to the public,” Hecht said.
Hecht pressed lawmakers to adopt a “straightforward fix” by making sure judges get risk-assessment information for informed bail decisions, by providing pretrial supervision for those released and by asking voters to amend the Texas Constitution to allow no bail for high-risk, potentially violent defendants.
“It’s wrong to lock up people only because they’re poor. It offends basic notions of liberty and humanity. And it’s dangerous to release defendants only because they can afford to make bail,” he said.
On other issues:
• Hecht encouraged lawmakers to address a legal shortcoming that places juveniles in the criminal justice system over Class C misdemeanors.
“If a 12-year-old steals a real car, he is adjudicated as a juvenile in the civil justice system and faces no criminal penalty. But if he steals a $10 toy car from a general store, he is prosecuted in the criminal system for a Class C misdemeanor,” he said. “This makes no sense.”
Hecht asked the Legislature to approve SB 512 and HB 3660, saying they will address the issue and “help keep children from spiraling deeper into the criminal justice system while holding them accountable for their actions.”
“The Texas Constitution of 1876 exempted basic wages paid by cash or check from seizure by creditors to safeguard their use for basic living expenses,” he said. “Today, because payments are often by direct deposit, they don’t have the protection our state’s founders believed was important.”
• Acknowledging that racial prejudice continues to plague the justice system, Hecht said Texas courts will gather information on bias and encourage better training for judges.
“Outcries last summer charged that the justice system is not fair, and, just as importantly, not perceived to be fair. The charges cannot be ignored,” he said.