Order Paves Way for Reopening of Texas Courts
As I write this column, Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order reopening Texas from many of the pandemic-related restrictions is about to take effect. Effective March 10, the governor removed operating limits for businesses, with some leeway given to county judges to take protective measures in areas where hospitalization rates surpass 15% for seven straight days. The governor also rescinded the executive order requiring face coverings, while still encouraging their use to prevent the spread of the coronavirus when social distancing isn’t possible.
What does this mean for Texas courts?
Several days after the governor’s announcement, the Texas Supreme Court issued its 36th emergency order of the pandemic with a number of changes to the prior COVID-19 protocols. The order removed requirements that all but certain proceedings be remote, although the court encourages remote trials and hearings. Under the order, local presiding judges have authority to require masks for participants and impose physical distances for in-person proceedings.
Other provisions of the Supreme Court order include:
Courts of appeals may conduct in-person proceedings if the chief justice of each court adopts minimum standard health protocols for court participants and the public that will be employed in the courtroom and in public areas of the court building.
All other courts may also conduct in-person proceedings—including both jury and non-jury proceedings—if the local administrative district judge or presiding judge of a municipal court, as applicable, adopts in consultation with the judges in the county or municipal court buildings minimum standard health protocols for court proceedings and the public attending court proceedings. Those measures should be employed in all courtrooms and throughout all public areas of the court buildings, including masking, social distancing, or both.
In criminal cases where confinement in jail or prison is a potential punishment, remote jury proceedings must not be conducted without appropriate waivers and consent obtained on the record from the defendant and prosecutor.
Courts must establish communication protocols to ensure that no court participants have tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous 10 days, have had symptoms of COVID-19 within the previous 10 days, or have had recent known exposure to COVID-19 within the previous 14 days. Jury summonses will inquire about any such symptoms or exposure.
The State Bar will continue to keep you updated on the changes affecting the legal profession. For the latest information and to access all of the Supreme Court’s current emergency orders, along with court guidance from the Office of Court Administration, updates on State Bar operations, and free lawyer resources and webinars, go to texasbar.com/coronavirus.
State Bar of Texas
Larry McDougal can be reached by email at email@example.com.