In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts remain operational with some technological adjustments. To efficiently serve their constituents, judges are holding virtual hearings and video magistration more frequently. For example, a District Court in Collin County garnered national news coverage for holding the first ever virtual civil summary jury trial on May 18 via Zoom. On May 20, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals heard oral arguments via the same videoconference tool. Justices of the Peace in Uvalde County responded positively to using technology to complete their magistration and case management duties. To assist with the technology transition, the Office of Court Administration (OCA) offers the ability to stream and host meetings using Zoom and YouTube for courts conducting proceedings virtually.
To coincide with Governor Abbott’s efforts to reopen the state, the Texas Supreme Court issued two emergency orders on May 14. Emergency Order-15 allows courts to resume issuance of eviction citations and hold hearings for those cases that do not fall under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. On May 19, that emergency order became effective. The order requires that the plaintiff show that their case is not subject to the moratorium on evictions imposed by Section 4024 of the CARES Act, and also allows, as of May 26, for writs of possession to be executed. The second order, Emergency Order-16, allows for writs of garnishment in consumer debt cases and turnover orders to resume, effective May 26. More information on Justice Court guidance regarding residential eviction and consumer debt cases can be found at the Texas Justice Court Training Center's website.
Effective June 1, courts may begin holding nonessential in-person hearings consistent with OCA's Guidance to Courts Regarding All Court Proceedings. The June 1 guidance requires that "the local administrative district judge for a county or the presiding judge of a municipal court, as applicable, must submit an operating plan for all courts in the county or municipality to the Regional Presiding Judge." It is required that county judges be included in the development of the operating plan. Moreover, the local administrative district judge "must attempt to confer with judges of all courts with courtrooms in county buildings." OCA has provided a template for operating plans on their website that covers safety protocols. It is important to note that all courts must follow OCA guidance based on the Texas Supreme Courts' Emergency Order-12 issued April 27.
Ultimately, while there are aspects of the operating plans that are mandatory, OCA's guidance gives each court discretion to handle court proceedings based on local needs in consultation with the local health authority. Courts will continue to adapt and create innovative ways to improve efficiency during this ever-evolving pandemic environment.
At the time of this publication, the Texas Supreme Court issued Emergency Order-17 which amends existing provisions from Emergency Order-12. More information on the latest order can be found on OCA's website.
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