Texas Courts Zoom Forward With Virtual Hearings

The Texas Supreme Court in Austin. (Courthouse News photo / Kelsey Jukam)

(CN) — When courthouses across the United States began the process of closing down last month to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, the leadership of Texas’ two high courts wanted to send a strong message: The justice system in the Lone Star State would remain open for business.

Even before Governor Greg Abbott issued social-distancing measures banning gatherings of over 10 people and municipalities began ushering in stay-at-home orders, leaders of the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals began looking into ways to keep state courts as operational as possible.

As the third branch of government in the midst of a pandemic the courts had to remain a steady part of society, the judicial leaders thought, and even by the state’s own standards only a very limited number of cases are filtered through as essential or emergency matters.

The result has been a virtual showcase of the legal system, ranging from traffic citations in Judge Craig Landin’s municipal court in Sugar Land, to oral arguments in the last four state Supreme Court cases of the term. And all accessible through a state-run channel directory and livestreamed on YouTube for public consumption.

“It’s been a busy month, but the courts have done really well,” said David Slayton, director of the Texas Office of Court Administration. “Every week has grown since we started.”

One month after the March 24 rollout of the first virtual courtroom in Texas held via Zoom, more than 8,500 separate proceedings have been held remotely involving 113,000 participants and just over 1,300 judges using the video conferencing system. On Tuesday, the state set a record for the most number of virtual proceedings — 506 in a single day.

“We knew that we were most likely not going to be having proceedings in person and so we were left with a choice of only doing emergency matters in person, which obviously even that would put participants at risk, or to find a way to handle proceedings remotely and then be able to handle any type of proceeding — except for a jury trial,” Slayton said in an interview this week.

That’s why on any given day you can find bond hearings, family law proceedings, civil lawsuits and even some bench trials being heard before a judge, amounting to over 47,000 hours’ worth of proceedings in a month.

“Even though they might not be deemed essential or emergency in the grand scheme of things, the fact is that to those individual litigants, their cases are absolutely essential to them,” Slayton said.

Texas isn’t the only state to adapt to the unique conditions brought on by the virus, at least 39 other states have some type of order related to virtual hearings, according to the National Center for State Courts. But the approach varies widely by jurisdiction.

For New York and California, the transition to socially distant online court operations has been a mixed bag.

New York only began expanding temporary virtual courts on April 13 beyond the limited category of essential and emergency matters reserved mostly for criminal and family courts. All filings of non-essential civil complaints have been shut down since March 23.

But the first week of expanded virtual courts was a positive sign, according to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. Nearly 8,000 matters were heard in the first five days of online operations with over 2,600 cases being settled or disposed, DiFiore announced in a video message this week.

“Our objective, in the short term, is to carefully expand virtual access, keeping in mind the special challenges faced by the self-represented and those lacking the technology to participate in a virtual forum. In the long term, of course, we want to return to normal operations whenever that becomes possible and appropriate,” DiFiore said.

Remote hearings in California have been scattered so far after Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye authorized state courts to use video conferencing technology March 30. Many courthouses have remained closed during the pandemic and have also restricted nonessential civil filings with minimal exceptions for “time-sensitive matters.”

The effort to keep state courts across the country moving while maintaining public safety resulted in the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators to form a Pandemic Rapid Response Team consisting of six judicial leaders. The group is chaired by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, whose own court issued emergency orders requiring all hearings in the state be conducted remotely until further notice.

“State courts are the heart of the American system of justice,” Hecht said in a statement. “Collectively we are working together to protect public health while also finding innovative ways to keep the courts open for business.”

And that means judges are still free to dispense advice from their makeshift virtual bench.

In one exchange among dozens of hearings this week in Judge Landin’s Municipal Court in Sugar Land, located just southwest of Houston, an 18-year-old driver facing a traffic citation received a lesson in responsible driving.

“Know where that insurance card is. If you’re driving, you’ve got to have it,” the judge said.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied before his father is heard chiming in off-camera, “Thank you judge!”

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