As we face unprecedented health concerns in our lives, the court system is facing unprecedented challenges in providing an efficient justice to the involved parties.
Courthouses closed their doors in March and have yet to re-open to the public. Texas courts have turned to virtual hearings to assist parties to move cases forward. However, the Texas Supreme Court issued Emergency Orders to prevent jury trials from going forward because of the COVID-19 health dangers.
Texas Court will conduct virtual jury trials
UPDATE: On September 1, 2020 the Texas Office of Court Administration issued a report: Jury Trials during COVID19 Pandemic. TX Admin Report jury-report-to-scotx-final The Texas Office of Court Administration monitored several trials from March-August and issued their recommendations.
The report makes clear: Virtual civil trials are encouraged and a court can conduct without the consent of either party. A court that wishes to conduct an in-person jury trial must seek approval from the local administrative judge and regional administrative judge in addition to submitting a COVID19 courtroom procedure plan.
The Travis County District and County Civil judges will begin virtual civil trials on October 12, 2020. No consent of the parties is required. The memo issued states what cases will go first:
“Each jury week, the first priority will be given to the hearing of jury trials in civil child protection lawsuits filed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) that are subject to statutory trial deadlines. If either or both of the virtual juries scheduled for a given jury week are not needed for DFPS lawsuits, those virtual jury pools will be then made available for the hearing of other civil jury matters set and announced that week.”
Back on July 8, 2020 the Travis County Civil District & County Court Judges published a Pilot Jury Trial Press Release detailing a pilot program for resuming jury trials via Zoom beginning in August 2020. The pilot program will conduct jury selection and jury trials completely remote for civil lawsuits. The pilot program is put together by the Office of Court Administration and the Austin Bar Association’s Jury Task Force. The Austin Bar posted the press release on their website.
Capital Area Trial Lawyers Want to Assist the Courts
To assist and provide guidance to the Travis County District and County Courts, Capital Area Trial Lawyers Association has compiled a paper: CATLA COVID-19 Jury Trials Recommendations.
Both the Constitution of the United States and the Texas Constitution guarantee the right to a trial by jury. As noted by the Honorable Tom C. Clark, Texan and former justice of the United States Supreme Court,
“The jury system improves the quality of justice and is the sole means of keeping its administration attuned to community standards.”
CATLA urges caution, as we also recognize that we are about to embark on perhaps the most significant changes to how civil cases are tried to a jury that have been made in hundreds of years. When we move forward, we must be able to do so courageously, with the confidence that we have taken all reasonable viewpoints and available information into account. Additional CATLA information can be found here.
The Travis County Pilot Program
The Austin Bar Association is hosted two (2) webinars regarding the Travis County Pilot Program on July 16 and July 27. The webinars were free and open for registration.
The July 16th webinar described the process for virtual summary jury trials and answered several questions from the audience. The Travis-Co-Civil-Pilot-Jury-Trial-Program-FINAL-2 presentation materials and webinar meeting_saved_chat can be downloaded for further details.
The July 27 webcast described the issues and solutions to virtual jury trials. The presentation materials are here Nuts-and-Bolts-of-Remote-Jury-Trial-July-27 and the moderators included several references to OCP Demonstration Jury Trial Report 07.15.2020-Final.
The pilot program was abandoned in lieu of mandatory virtual civil jury trials as referenced above.
Right to Jury Trial
If we fail to take these viewpoints and information into account, we run afoul of the timeless guidance by one of our founding fathers, often referred to “father of the Bill of Rights,” who warned:
“That in controversies respecting property, and in suits between man and man, the ancient trial by jury is preferable to any other, and ought to be held sacred.”
Regardless of whether it is a traditional in-person jury trial, a virtual jury trial or any other modified jury trial the below issues should be considered for each. The 7th Amendment mandate of an impartial jury that reflects a fair cross section of the community presents unique challenges in the context of modifying traditional in-person jury trials. These challenges include equal access to technology, lack of human-to-human authenticity in a virtual process and personal safety concerns. Overall, we believe that all viable solutions should be considered based upon objectively verifiable data.
Larrick Law Firm PC is dedicated to providing open communication regarding Texas virtual civil jury trials, and will continue to update this blog as information is released.
With the legal profession moving online with virtual hearings and virtual jury trials, are you ready?
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