Henderson County’s innovative courtroom modifications are the talk of Texas. When COVID-19 hit, all courts shut down. This left those incarcerated with few options, except to wait it out. Henderson County could not have people waiting for their right to due process. This led to adapting the courtroom and way that it operates to accommodate new protocols.
“We were virtual for a few months, and now we are a mix,” Judge Scott McKee said. “If you want to show up in person you can, if concerned, you can Zoom.”
Shortly after the shut down, virtual court began via Zoom, an online meeting program. This provided a safe way to make progress through the tremendous case loads. Inmates were not left waiting indefinitely and prevented overcrowding. Around six weeks later the courtroom opened for in-person hearings. Within a week of reopening Governor Abbott issued a mask mandate and the courts closed again.
“We had to shut down and figure this out,” said Kevin Endsley, court coordinator for the 392nd District Court.
It is very difficult for the courtroom staff to understand each other with masks on. In court every word needs recorded exactly and masks create a conflict.
“If you cannot hear me or understand me, this causes issues,” McKee said. “The Office of Court Administration said if we installed plexiglass that we didn’t have to wear a mask. County Judge Wade McKinney got this installed quickly. Other than the plexiglass, the system hasn’t cost any extra. We had the computers and laptops which were already set up for Zoom and the camera installed on the bench is what I used as DA while on military tour in Iraq.”
The process flows like a fine tuned machine. The judge, court reporter, and various staff members are behind the glass. Prosecutors and defense attorneys also have a glass partition between them.
McKee installed a camera on the bench pointing from the judge's perspective. The jail has a computer and camera set up for the inmates and the attorneys join in a similar way. Everyone can see and hear one another.
“Inmates are no longer brought from the jail unless it is a contested case,” Endsley said.
This has saved time, money and ensures inmates do not have as long to wait. McKee said he thinks this is part of the process that should continue in the future.
“I think the best thing moving forward is to continue using zoom from jail,” McKee said. "We had an inmate that was hearing impaired and his interpreter was in the courtroom via Zoom. It is amazing how well it works."
Cases switched between defendants and attorneys who were both present and attending virtually. The variations were endless, but somehow it works and it works well. The docket flowed rapidly and was efficient.
Endsley said this has also helped attorneys that work in multiple counties. An attorney could be out of town and still represent one or more people.
“The process is extremely unique, we were ready to go to work and have been doing that safely and responsibly,” McKee said. “We have other courts in the state using us as an example. There are still counties not having court. We have been leading and doing it responsibly. I am proud of that.”
The next step is jury trials, which McKee hopes resume in early 2021. The Texan has offered space for jury selection which will start most likely in January.
“The justice system is moving here in Henderson County," McKee said. “We have big plans in 2021.”