Texas Courthouse Doors Re-Open, Sort Of

The Texas Supreme Court issued its thirty sixth (36th) emergency order midweek last week. Along with the persistent pushing of deadlines, this order finally shed some rays of light for Texans to regain access to the court rooms. The Order details methods for in-person court room proceedings.

The Court’s Order does continue to stress that in-person proceedings must only be done after a series of procedures are in place to ensure attendant and court staff safety. However, the Court has created a pathway for practitioners and citizens to be able to have their day inside a court again rather than just a remote video chat with a court.

The Order allows courts to conduct in-person proceedings if a local administrative or presiding judge has approved them and there is established protocols to ensure no participant has had exposure or tested positive to COVID-19 within the past ten to fourteen (10-14) days. A party may still object to an in-person jury trial at least seven (7) days before the jury proceeding and the jury instructions will spell out how the protocols and precautions the court has in place work. Any juror who has been exposed or tested positive for COVID-19 will be excused or possibly rescheduled.

The State Bar of Texas has also established a task force for criminal proceedings which is focused on finding ways to increase in-person access to criminal proceedings. The task force has been focusing on presenting the Texas Supreme Court with recommendations for the most safe and effective methods for allowing Texans who have been accused of crimes more direct access to in-person court options. Much of the task force’s recommendations were incorporated in this newest Order.

As more and more Texans get vaccinated and the number of active cases in Texas cities continues to shrink the Texas Supreme Court will likely continue to issue more Orders easing the restrictions on people attending court in-person. The one major question that remains at the front of many litigators’ minds is whether or not the remote attendance will remain after COVID-19 is a distant memory. Remote access to the courts has greatly increased the efficiency of many practices but also presents real obstacles to the reasonable practice of law. With any luck the Texas Supreme Court will be able to put in place procedures that allow remote attendance when practicable to help relieve the backlog caused by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

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