Everyone to get a day in court – virtually

By Jorjanna Price

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During the statewide lockdown for COVID-19, almost everything appeared to be closed. Even though courtrooms were shuttered, the Texas legal system never ground to a halt. 

"We were proud that during the pandemic the Texas judiciary has been really proactive in trying to keep the wheels of justice moving," said David Slayton, administrative director of the Office of Court Administration (OCA). When people couldn’t enter courthouses, he explained, they still were able to file cases and motions electronically.

Slayton spoke at the "Court Systems Moving Into the Future" session during the virtual TAC Legislative Conference along with representatives from the bench and Legislature. The speakers agreed that the pandemic has forced parties in judicial proceedings to rethink every step of a case, from submitting evidence to jury deliberations, by incorporating videoconferencing as a substitute for in-person appearances. Many of the results have been well received and could prove to be cost-effective, if continued after the pandemic.

With the Texas Supreme Court’s backing, Slayton said, civil proceedings resumed in the spring with parties in each case using video communications. OCA procured licenses for Zoom and provided training so no judge would be left without resources or know-how. Next, the high court allowed in-person hearings, but each county had to submit a plan for social distancing, limits on group size and other restrictions.

By the end of August, thousands of remote court proceedings had been held, as well as several short civil and criminal jury trials to test the viability of going virtual. Slayton said criminal jury trials for serious offenses will be more difficult to implement and have been placed on hold.

State District Judge Emily Miskel of Collin County was the first to test trial-by-remote when she held a one-day summary trial in May. Jurors hearing the insurance dispute were at home or some location other than the courthouse, using laptops, tablets and iPhones to listen to testimony and conduct their deliberations. The trial was the first in the country conducted over Zoom.

Since then, Miskel said, she has found virtual hearings to be especially helpful in family law cases when indigent parents cannot find child care or get off work to appear at court. Also, these parents participate more fully when not surrounded by the trappings of a courtroom. "They’re more likely to speak up. I’m hearing more from them," she said. "I tell other judges, ‘Don't be so formal with court decorum,' so you can work with people where they are."

TAC Legislative Consultant Kelsey Bernstein (upper left) moderates the panel discussion "Court Systems Moving Into the Future" during the TAC Legislative Conference. Clockwise, speakers included Fayette County Justice of the Peace Kyle Hartmann; 470th District Court Judge Emily Miskel from Collin County; Rep. Jeff Leach, chairman of the state House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee; and Administrative Director David Slayton, Office of Court Administration.

Justice of the Peace Kyle Hartmann of Fayette County said justices of the peace are giving good reviews to Zoom proceedings, mostly because litigants in those courts often represent themselves and may travel long distances or miss work to reach the courtroom. "We're seeing greater participation across the board. I think use of technology in courts is going to be one of the underlying blessings in this pandemic. I see a lot of use moving forward," he said.

To assist local courts, Fayette County created a loan program of iPads or laptops for parties lacking the technology. Also the public library has been recruited. “They had extra laptops and their staff knows Zoom,” Hartmann said. "If a party doesn't have access to technology, they can go to the library, and staff will set up in a room and lead them through."

State Rep. Jeff Leach, chairman of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee, said this year's virtual court experiences will need to be examined in the 2021 legislative session. Interruptions in judicial proceedings occur not just during a rare pandemic, he said, but more often during natural disasters such as hurricanes.

"We want to understand what went right and what didn’t. What things we might can fix," Leach said. "Texas has got to be forward-looking and think of any and all ways to make sure our courtrooms stay open. There is no rulebook for pandemics. The next session will be challenging."