Jury Trials Moving Forward Despite Coronavirus Fears

 

AUSTIN, TX – The Texas State Office of Court Administration has released guidelines regarding how the Texas court systems should work during the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to the report published by the TSOCA, on August 31, Texas’ constitutional bill of rights provides that “the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.”1 Ensuring that the right to a jury trial is available in all cases has been strained during the past six months, as the ability to gather prospective jurors and others together during the pandemic has been limited. Prior to the pandemic, Texas courts averaged 186 jury trials per week. However, since mid-March, jury trials have been suspended except for in limited cases assisted by the Office of Court Administration (OCA) through October 1. Pursuant to the Supreme Court’s Emergency Orders Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster, OCA has reviewed 85 requests to hold jury trials from June to September, and twenty of those trials have occurred. Based upon the planning, observations, and lessons learned from those trials as noted below, OCA submits to the Supreme Court the following recommendations regarding jury proceedings:

In-person jury proceedings should be limited to district and county courts, including statutory county courts and statutory probate courts, between October 1 and December 31.

All courts should be permitted to conduct virtual jury proceedings, which are allowable under the current emergency order. However, in jailable criminal jury trials, virtual jury proceedings should only occur with appropriate waivers and consent of the defendant and prosecutor made on the record. In all other virtual jury trial proceedings, consent should not be required.

The local administrative district judge for each county and the presiding judge of a municipal court should be required, after conferring with all judges in the county (local administrative district judges) or city (presiding judges of municipal courts) to submit a plan for conducting jury trials consistent with guidelines for conducting jury trial proceedings issued by OCA. Included in those guidelines should be:

  1. Procedures for the summoning of jurors
  2. Guidance on appropriate locations for jury proceedings
  3. Requirements for screening requirements
  4. Requirements for face coverings
  5. Social distancing protocols
  6. Alternate Jurors
  7. Arrangement of Courtroom
  8. Microphone protection protocols
  9. Exhibit/evidence management
  10. Vulnerable witnesses
  11. Food precautions
  12. Cleaning requirements

According to a local judge in Tom Green County, there are at least two jury trials on the docket scheduled in the next 12 months.

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