TEXAS SUPREME COURT EXTENDS RESTRICTIONS ON IN-PERSON JURY TRIALS TO DECEMBER
Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court issued its 26th Emergency Order and pushed back in-person jury proceedings to December for justice and municipal courts and established a detailed protocol for district courts that want to try cases live before December. At the end of May, the court paused all proceedings until August, and has since postponed in-person jury proceedings to September, then October and now until December.
The latest Emergency Order sets up a series of requirements that district, statutory, constitutional county and statutory probate courts must meet in order to hold in-person jury proceedings. The local administrative district judge must submit a plan that is consistent with restrictions set by the courts, prove the proceeding will assist with coordinating resources or managing docket capacity, and consult with local health authorities no more than five days before the proceeding. The order also requires the court to consider on the record any objections or motions related to the proceedings at least seven days beforehand. The court also must establish communication protocols to ensure no participants have tested positive for the virus within the past 30 days, have symptoms or have been recently exposed to someone who tested positive.
In Harris County, for example, jury selection is being conducted in the large convention/ event space at NRG where the Houston Rodeo is traditionally held. Potential jurors are asked to complete a questionnaire about their potential exposure to COVID-19 and everyone has their temperature taken. Only cases with 2 parties which can tried in one or two days are being allowed to proceed for now. Criminal, family, and small civil cases are the only ones being considered for trial right now in Harris County. Voir dire is being held is a very large convention hall and, once selected, the final jury is being asked to go to the courts building downtown on the following day to start trial. The large voir dire room has space for 60 panelists to be seated 8 to 10 feet apart with tables at the front for the judge, court staff and counsel. For trials, the courtrooms downtown have been configured to comply with the supreme court mandates with jurors being seated throughout the courtroom spread very far apart, face shields and masks being used by all participants in the courtroom and the movement of counsel being restricted. Multi-party civil cases, or cases taking more than two days to try, are still not being to called to trial in Harris County given the voir dire and courtroom configurations at this time. As more Texas counties do more with juries and trials we will continue to report on those developments.