As a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, The Texas Supreme Court is allowing local judges the ability to stream and host court proceedings online. Under the Open Courts Provision of the Texas Constitution, it requires that all courts maintain public access.
The state has provided Zoom video conferencing software to the courts, which allows multiple users and even a virtual waiting room for people to await their scheduled times.
The Henderson County Sheriff's Office has seen a decline in calls, but is continuing its investigations. In order to accommodate the new virtual courtroom, Sheriff Botie Hillhouse had a computer room set up in the jail. The process eliminates the need to transport inmates and jail staff to the Judicial Complex. Now jailers can bring defendants into the room one at a time.
District Attorneys, court clerks/necessary court personnel, defense attorneys and defendants are all present during the process with the defense attorney having a choice of whether to be at the jail with the client or in their offices.
Jury trials are currently suspended by the state and are not able to be hosted virtually, but many other essential hearings are able to take place such as plea bargains, arraignments, motions to reduce bonds, Child Protective Services cases, victims of domestic abuse and protective orders.
“There are some hearings we have to have to ensure people get their due process,” said District Judge Scott McKee. “The justice system is continuing to roll and we are doing our best to conduct it in a safe and responsible manner.”
McKee said he feels the process is going well so far and is a great way to help until the current crisis is past.
Judge McKee is no stranger to virtual business. During his first year as District Attorney he was deployed to Iraq.
“We have done a lot online for years,” McKee said. “We established online search warrants, so a lot of the systems we had in place. I was deployed to Iraq in 2010 and would have weekly staff meetings during my first year as a DA and even presented my annual budget to the commissioners court from Baghdad.”
After discussing with all of the key participants the best way to handle paperwork signing and exchange, the process had a learning curve but is now moving along.
“The process we started is still in place, there is just more of it,” McKee said. “I sign it and send it back, same process just a lot more paperwork between a lot more people. It is the safer way because there are digital signatures instead of everyone handling that same piece of paper.”
After the papers are signed and sent to the clerk's office they are printed, stamped and rescanned.
McKee said the state provided a lot of online training, some meetings and he had some experience himself while hearing some statewide involuntary quarantine cases, which alerted him to the direction this may be heading.
Even if they are able to resume May 4, the process of sending out jury summons and convincing people to sit shoulder to shoulder in such a time of uncertainty may prove challenging. Once the process does start back chances are there will be a large amount of jury trials in order to catch up.
District Attorney Mark Hall participated Wednesday and most of the day Thursday in the online court room.
“While the process took longer due to the fact that inmates had to be escorted to and from their cells, the Sheriff's Office was very efficient in doing so,” Hall said. “and the procedural part of the hearings were no different than had we been having in the courtroom. Although we are not able to move as many cases as we can in open court, I believe it is an excellent solution to conducting necessary hearings and it will help to relieve at least a little, the inevitable flood of cases once we get back into the courtroom.”
Hall also stated that as time goes on and people become more familiar with the system that it will get easier and more efficient.
“All in all, it is going to help out tremendously,” he said.
From the defense standpoint Attorney Justin Weiner's office stopped seeing people in person a week or two ago. Most things can be handled digitally and he has been using the opportunity to get caught up.
Some courts have reset until June, some are using the virtual court but each county is handling things in its own way. The situation has created extra concern for those waiting in the jail system.
“I would say that it is especially difficult for those that are in custody. As scary as it is for those of us out here, they have even less control over their situation,” Weiner said.
Weiner said it was encouraging that the local legal system is finding ways to address the very essential needs of defendants during this time.
“It is encouraging and shows the resilience of our local system we are willing to adapt and learn new things to help those we represent,” he said.