Area judges and attorneys expect a flood of business, both new and catching up, once the courts reopen to the public on June 1.
“We’re not doing much here right now,” 413th District Judge Bill Bosworth said. “Currently, we can’t have a live hearing in the courtroom unless there’s no other option. So we’ve been provided Zoom subscriptions and everybody’s been pushed to do Zoom hearings in the courtroom.”
The district courts are under orders from the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, Bosworth said.
“They issue emergency orders and there have been several of them,” Bosworth said. “They keep getting changed kind of like everything else in the county. Then there’s the Office of Court Administration, which issues advisories to the courts on how to conduct their business and those advisories are binding on the courts.”
The Zoom system may prove helpful once the COVID-19 crisis subsides, Bosworth said when asked whether use of the system would be permissible once courts are otherwise open to the public.
“We didn’t have this technology before all this,” Bosworth said. “We might have had someone testify by telephone, someone in jail or otherwise unavailable to be here before this.
“Ten years ago we had a secure closed-circuit video conference in the courtroom with the jail. Those systems became obsolete and we didn’t have anything else for a while like what we have now with Zoom. So, after this is all over, I imagine we’ll still use Zoom for situations of an out-of-town or faraway person or witness. It can work, but it’s not ideal. I like all the lawyers and people involved present in the courtroom where they have the advantage of seeing everything that’s going on if possible.”
For now safety measures such as social distancing, frequent hand washing and employees working from home when possible remain the new normal at the Guinn Justice Center.
Bosworth and 249th District Judge Wayne Bridewell, have been trading off days at Guinn.
“We kind of switch back and forth,” Bosworth said. “But, when I’m home I’m pretty much still on the phone or computer. I do a lot of search and arrest warrants by email on the days I work from home. Still answer the phone just like I’m here.
“Under the guidance of the Office of Court Administration we’re supposed to work from home if possible, send staff home when they’re not needed. Fortunately, the county’s IT Department had already anticipated having to come up with work-from-home arrangements in an emergency. So they had a stash of laptops where we can log in through some kind of secure connection. So like my criminal coordinator, she’s not here today. But she’s home with her laptop. If you call her desk it rings at her house and she answers just like she’s here.”
With the threat of COVID-19 spread expected to linger for some time, such safety precautions are unlikely to cease anytime soon.
“We canceled the grand jury for April,” Bosworth said. “So at the end of this month we’ll probably do a two-day grand jury to try to catch up. And put them in the downstairs room where they can stay spread out.”
Bonds still have to be set for those arrested, Bosworth said, while arraignments and other deadlines have been extended.
“The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals basically have said that any deadline that may be reached during this emergency period that the governor’s declared may be extended or passed up until 60 days after they lift the emergency declaration,” Bosworth said.
It’s been a change of pace no doubt, Bosworth said.
“Business here, like pretty much everywhere else, has ground to a halt,” Bosworth said. “We were running at 110 mph with jury trials and every other kind of hearing we could cram into a week. Then it went from that to about 2 mph. We went from not having enough parking spaces to not having any cars in the parking lot.”
Certain court actions continue unabated, however, out of expediency, such as acceptance of agreements between opposing attorneys, or out of necessity.
“There have been a lot of emergency protective orders, more than usual,” Bosworth said. “Been more family violence cases lately, because of people being cooped up at home together I guess. So things like that where a decision has to be made now, I’ll do a hearing on something like that.”
That there will be a backlog after June 1, Bosworth is sure. How much of one remains to be seen.
Arrests continue but have been down. The recently repealed stay home order likely provided fewer opportunities to break the law, Bosworth figures.
Bosworth answered stressful and strange when asked to sum up the mood at the Guinn.
“We’re ready for it to be over,” Bosworth said. “We want everybody to be healthy, happy and working. Life was really good several weeks ago when everybody was working and the economy was booming and we didn’t have this virus to worry about. Hopefully, we get back to that soon.”
For now, it’s best to look on the bright side, Bosworth concluded.
“One nice thing is it’s been really fun in the neighborhood,” Bosworth said. “I never knew our neighbors had so many dogs. I’ve never seen so many dogs walk by the house. I’ll sit on the porch and see 30 sets of people walk by with different kind of wild-looking dogs, a cross breed of this or that or whatever.”
For Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Ronny McBroom, magistrations continue uninterrupted. Virus or no virus there’s no getting around those, McBroom said. McBroom continues to travel to the Johnson County Jail to take care of those.
Eviction hearings and all in-court hearings remain on hold for now.
“So we’re answering phones, trying to get people to understand that we’re locked in here and can’t have anybody coming into our lobby,” McBroom said. “But we can still answer questions and see if they want to send checks in by mail or do it online for their fees.”
McBroom predicts a rush of business and a large backlog once his and the county’s other three JP courts reopen to the public.
“Because, before the COVID-19 stuff even came up the legislature, in their last session, increased our limits from $10,000 to $20,000,” McBroom said. “That’s going to bring a lot more high dollar cases into JP courts. Last time we had an adjustment in our limits from $5,000 to $10,000 in 2007 we took on 30 percent of the debt claims from the county courts at law. Our training center is telling us we’re probably see the same effect from this new increase.”
The plan, once his court reopens, is to take it slow and stagger hearings, McBroom said.
“We’ll probably have court all day for a while just to get caught up,” McBroom said. “We’re going to have to work things out to where there’s never more than 10 people in the building. With the social distancing needs and all that’s going to be a challenge.”
Cleburne attorney Bill Mason joked that the COVID-19 situation has been going on so long he can’t remember the last time he was in a courtroom.
“On our side of the fence it’s been just a slowdown fallout from the virus,” Mason said. “For a lot of attorneys the phones have quit ringing with new clients. We’re all just working on what we have but not going to court outside emergency, essential hearings like child protective orders and things like that. Most of the hearings have shifted the way of Zoom for now. That seems to fit the bill pretty well for now with one major exception, the constitutional right to a jury trial. They still haven’t figured out how to deal with that yet.”
Client handling requires extra care, Mason said.
“Because they’re dealing with the same levels of anxiety anyone involved in a court proceeding has but now with the extra pressure of not being able to get much done because of the situation,” Mason said.
Even once the courts reopen challenges will abound, he said.
“Things like picking a jury,” Mason said. “How do you manage bringing 60 people in and maintain social distancing? Not to mention the psychological factors such as some people who get called for jury duty may not want to be getting out in public just yet.”
Mason, like Bosworth and McBroom, said he hopes things begin returning to normal after June 1 but that he retains a wait see attitude.
“Word on the street is that it will be August, September before we can start to get back to jury trials,” Mason said. “I think those predictions may be too early.”