Things Will Change When Texas Courthouses Reopen: Judiciary Lays Road Map for After June 1
By Angela Morris
After June 1, Texas courts might begin to hold some hearings in courthouses again, but it’s going to look different compared to pre-coronavirus times.
Judges in face masks, constant courtroom cleanings, only two people per elevator and counsel tables moved six feet apart: These are some changes lawyers may notice when Texas courts start reopening.
There still won’t be jury trials right away, but juries may resume in the summer, after the Texas Office of Court Administration releases guidance that helps courts ensure the safety of jurors and others, who gather in large groups, according to a new guidance document that the office released Monday.
“Courts have a responsibility not only to take steps to ensure the health and safety of those entering a court building for court proceedings, but also to reassure visitors that the courts are working to ensure visitors’ health and safety so that they feel safe returning to the courthouse,” the guidance said.
The office urged courts to keep using remote proceedings in both essential and non-essential cases. But when a litigant or court participant can’t participate in a remote hearings, for reasons outside the court’s control, then in-person hearings may occur.
“Courts may need to conduct hybrid hearings in certain proceedings,” said the guidance.
Now, courts can’t do in-person proceedings in any nonessential case.
That will change after June 1, although it’s not mandatory for courts. They’re allowed to delay in-person proceedings in nonessential cases for longer.
First, each court jurisdictions’ administrative judge will have to submit an operating plan to their regional presiding judge.
Judges and court staff can’t come to work sick, and the courts also need to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
The guidance urged courts to encourage judges and staff to work remotely when it’s possible.
The courts will need to make accommodations to reduce in-person appearances for people who are vulnerable to serious illness or death from the coronavirus, such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
The operating plans must show how the courts will enforce social distancing by separating people in courthouse common areas, courtroom galleries, waiting areas, hallways and elevators and anywhere else that people gather.
When one courthouse has multiple courtrooms, it means those courts will have to pay special attention to staggering their schedules, so that the courts can maintain social distancing in all common areas, noted the guidance. The staggered schedules are supposed to keep building occupancy low and cut the number of people coming in or going out of the courthouse at one time.
Other aspects of the operating plans will include putting hand sanitizer stations around the courthouse, screening people for fever and COVID-19 symptoms before they enter, and cleaning courtrooms every time people come and go for hearings or recesses.