From sparsely occupied parking lots to a dearth of foot traffic inside, the Guinn Justice Center has resembled a ghost town of sorts over the past year. The slowdown in activity came courtesy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which scuttled many, though not all, of the center’s normal operations.
Although a return to normal remains a work in progress, life at the Guinn is about to get a lot livelier.
The absence of most in-person hearing but specifically jury trials substantially contributed to the slow down. Shutdown completely for a time during the pandemic, the Guinn reopened to the public last June but jury trials remained prohibited in almost all instances throughout the state. 413th District Judge Bill Bosworth on Monday said that jury trials are scheduled to return soon to Johnson County albeit on a soft opening and monitored schedule.
“I don’t remember the exact numbers,” Bosworth said. “But on a webinar the other day with the Office of Court Administration they said that the state of Texas conducted 225 jury trials in 2020 whereas in a normal year, when we’re not dealing with a pandemic, the statewide average is something like 4,000 per week.”
The decision to suspend jury trials, which has led to the expected delays and backlogs of those needing to have cases heard that can’t otherwise be dispensed, was out of the hands of local court officials. Such orders instead came from the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, Bosworth said.
“They issue emergency orders and their have been several of them,” Bosworth said. “They kept getting changed like everything else in the country during the pandemic. 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.”
To follow COVID-19-related safety measures such as social distancing, local courts limited in-person hearings and relied largely on Zoom hearings instead. That system worked for some hearings but rendered jury trials impractical for all intents and purposes. The few jury trials held in Texas over the past year were mainly civil trials, Bosworth said.
“Holding a jury trial under COVID-19 rules was very difficult,” Bosworth said. “You can’t really have a criminal trial because you have an absolute right to have your accuser in the room with you, have a right to confront the person accusing you. And the U.S. Supreme Court has said has said that that’s not the same as them being on a TV monitor or the telephone. So witnesses in a criminal case have to be live, have to be in person.
“We could do civil cases in some cases and some counties did. But we don’t have as high a demand for civil cases. But also in that regard we’ve also gotten behind in family law cases.”
Likely, at least partially in response to Gov. Greg Abbott having recently reopened the state, the Texas Supreme Court on March 5 cleared the way for courts to resume in-person hearings including jury trials.
“Basically, the order means the local administrative judge in each county can certify the minimum health standards we’re going to follow and then the only thing left is when the other judges want to schedule a jury trial they have to coordinate with the local administrative judge, which is me.
“Our plan is to get back into that slowly for the time being at least. We don’t want to be having four jury trials in one day in here just yet. We’re still wanting to minimize the building’s population a while longer in order to be safe.”
18th District Judge Sydney Hewlett will be first out of the gate.
“She has a jury trial, a civil case, scheduled in April,” Bosworth said. “I’m going to have one on May 10. [249th District Judge Wayne Bridewell] will probably start end of May, early June. From those we’re going to see how it goes and slowly try to get rolling back to normal after that.”
Johnson County Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Ronny McBroom said he plans to implement similar strategies in his courtroom.
“It’s been just over one year out since we’ve had jury trials,” McBroom said. “I’m going to roll out a slow start in April and schedule one case at time because we don’t want everybody showing up at the courthouse at 9 a.m. just yet.”
McBroom said he plans to enforce face masks and social distancing and to space jurors out in the gallery section.
“We’re going to limit things as much as possible to just necessary people at first with the hope of eventually getting things back to normal,” McBroom said.
Child Protective Court Associate Judge David Barkley said his CPS cases, which have been held on Zoom, are booked through the end of July.
“The Child Protection Court will resume all in-person hearings in Johnson County on Aug. 1,” Barkley said. “Any pending jury trials between now and Aug. 1 for this court will take place in person.”
Johnson County District Clerk David Lloyd said the shutdown and subsequent slowdown had less effect on his office thanks to the availability of online services.
“But it’s been strange and an adjustment for all of us with less people in the building,” Lloyd said. “We’re looking forward to more activity and things getting back to normal.”
District judges, Bosworth said, plan to hold jury calls in a large, downstairs room at the Guinn to allow for social distancing then bring the 12 picked to their respective courtrooms.
“We’re going to see how that works as far as the jurors sitting together in the jury box,” Bosworth said. “They can wear masks if they like. I really don’t want to get into the position of having to tell someone to wear a mask but if another juror objects to someone not wearing a mask, I don’t have an answer yet on how that will be handled.”
Gallery spectators may or may not pose a challenge.
“It’s open court,” Bosworth said. “The courtroom has to by law be open to the public. The only things that can be closed are some juvenile proceedings. Otherwise the public can come in and watch.”
Fortunately, Bosworth said, outside of major cases, trials rarely draw much of a crowd.
Still, Bosworth added, challenges persist, such as what to do should a juror or trial participant come down with COVID-19 once a jury trial gets underway.
“Do we just put the trial on pause, or what?” Bosworth said. “Those are some questions we may well run into over the next few months.”
Bosworth has also temporarily changed the format for big criminal docket hearings.
“We used to just have everyone in at 9 a.m. and grind through them until about 1 p.m., “ Bosworth said. “But now, instead of 120 criminal cases we’re looking at about 300 and the room is too small for that. Instead we’re going to spread them out over a couple of days with 15 or so people scheduled for each hour. The problem there is if someone’s scheduled for 10 a.m. and shows up at 11 a.m. well now we’ve got this other group of people to deal with. Same with attorneys.”
Court-appointed attorneys pose yet another challenge.
“We’ve been watching their numbers and some have more felony cases appointed to them than they’ve ever had,” Bosworth said. “We’ve been monitoring that because we don’t want to overload them.”
It’s going to be an adjustment for all attorneys to get back in the swing of in-person hearings and jury trials, Bosworth said.
“Because for the past year they’ve been doing Zoom hearings,” Bosworth said. “They can be in their office and do several Zoom hearings in different counties each day. Obviously, once things get back to normal, they won’t be able to drive to all those different counties in one day.”
Bosworth replied three to five years when asked how long he predicts it will take to work through the backlog of cases requiring jury trials including cases in the process of going to trial before the pandemic and those that have arisen since and fully return the Guinn’s normal pre-COVID-19 schedule.
“We want to address these cases quickly as possible,” Bosworth said. “But we can’t simply double up and go through two years worth of work in six months. For one, we only have 15 to 20 court-appointed attorneys on our list. Also, the district attorney’s office only has a limited number of prosecutors and both sides need time to prepare for all that stuff that happens in the background before a trial, planning strategy, coordinating witnesses and evidence. So we can’t just begin having trials back to back to back.”
Which brings up 6th Amendment questions of the right to a speedy trial for defendants in criminal cases.
“A lot of people have filed appeals based on that and the appellate courts are working through those now,” Bosworth said. “From the local side our hands are tied. The Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals tell the Office of Court Administration what to do and they said no jury trials.
“So we couldn’t before now schedule any jury trials because the Texas court system said we couldn’t. Now the very who will decide those speedy trial appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals, are the same people who said we couldn’t hold jury trials.
“So I don’t know how those will work out appellate wise but I know that [Johnson County District Attorney Dale Hanna’s] office is ready and willing to get back to trials and so are our courts.”
Despite such challenges, Bosworth said he looks forward to the return of in-person hearings and trials.
“You get a better feel for what’s going on,” Bosworth said. “On Zoom you don’t know what’s going on off screen. Is someone telling the person what to say, holding up cue cards? You miss the feedback of how a person is reacting when someone is testifying against them. Lawyers miss that chance to talk beforehand, maybe settle or work something out or just catch up. That lack of interaction I think hurts the profession.”
Bosworth added that he feels for those awaiting trial and delayed by COVID-19.
“I have to presume everyone is innocent unless proven otherwise in court,” Bosworth said. “But my heart goes out to someone who’s not guilty and been accused or out on bond waiting for their day in court. Or a civil matter. Say you’re a hardware store owner who bought a forklift to unload trucks but it doesn’t work and the company won’t fix it.
“You’re kind of stuck and need to get to court to get that situation fixed. So it’s been a mess, but almost every business and industry has gone through the same thing this last year.”