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Coronavirus and the courts

More things that will be shut down for the time being.

Courts in the Houston region are announcing measures to reduce or suspend some operations in response to the new coronavirus outbreak and local declarations of emergency.

Harris County’s court system announced Thursday that jury service will be suspended from Friday through March 20, another move by local authorities as they grapple with the spread of the new coronavirus.

Local Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said that the Board of District Court Judges met and decided to suspend service. “Jurors who have received a summons for these dates do not need to appear and do not need to schedule,” he said in the order released Thursday.

In addition Harris County Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez said earlier that civil trials will be canceled through the end of the month, and individual judges would determine how to handle bench warrants.

Brazoria County also announced suspension of jury duty because of the coronavirus outbreak for the week of March 16 and the week of March 23. “Residents that have received a jury summons for the week of March 16th or the week of March 23rd will not need to report for jury duty,” the county said in a release.

The federal courts have also announced some adjustments to civil matters in the wake of the public health pandemic, although federal courthouses across in the massive Southern District of Texas – which stretches from near the Louisiana border to the Mexico border — will remain open. Civil jury trials in Houston and Galveston have been postponed until April 1 or thereafter. Judges have the discretion to postpone bench trials.

The federal clerk’s offices will become a virtual operation, with aides available to the public by phone and responding to snail mail. The intake desks will process electronic court filings.

On the criminal side, juries are still being called. In addition, all hearings before a district, bankruptcy or magistrate judge will remain as scheduled unless the presiding judge in the case makes a change.

There’s more, involving civil, criminal, and family court, so read the rest, and check in with your court or your attorney if you have any legal proceedings in the near future. Texas Lawyer has a more comprehensive roundup of court actions around the state. As Alex Bunin, the head of the Public Defender’s office says in the piece, once there’s a confirmed case involving someone in a courtroom, whatever their role may be, it’s going to snowball from there.

Let’s also not forget the prisons and jails, which could be a major vector for the spread of the disease. The Harris County jail is doing screenings and can do quarantines, but maybe the short term answer is to arrest fewer people and let asylum-seekers and others out of detention. There’s lots of ways to do social distancing.

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10 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    Arrest fewer people? We are already doing that. Let’s arrest no one. That way we don’t have to have the discussion about bonds.

  2. brad says:

    Paul,

    Can’t tell if your comment is an idiotic joke or if you agree that unprecedented measures are required in unprecedented times.

    Ball is in your court.

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    These are not unprecedented times. If you think so then you don’t know your history and there is no need to debate it.

    I can’t resist an opportunity to comment on our County’s new Soft on Crime mentality.

    However, one of the principle architects of this lunacy, Rodney Ellis, may not make it through his next term. We shall see.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    i’m with Paul We didn’t let criminals run wild because of polio, ebola, SARS, MRSA, Zika, swine flu, or any other ‘unprecedented’ times, but hey, let’s do it now. And if we’re so concerned about asylum seekers, shit, get them out of harm’s way and send them to Mexico, or back wherever they came from, whichever they prefer. Easy peasy.

  5. Brad says:

    It’s OK, I know you guys don’t get it. Do you still think that the current virus is the same as his other viruses despite all evidence to the contrary. Please read any journalism on the dangerous situation in Italy.

  6. Manny says:

    Paul, does that mean that you think that Ellis may go the way of Eversole?

  7. HARRIS COUNTY CIVIL COURTHOUSE SHOULD BE CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC

    Likes schools and university instruction, most civil court cases are not THAT time-sensitive, and the costs for a slowdown (in terms of cost/benefit calculations) are likely to be minimal.

    Chief Hecht should have ordered court operations in civil courts to be reduced to a minimum to protect the court personnel as well as the public. Local administrative judges can still make that happen.

    It’s easily to implement epidemic-control measures (at least for the civil caselo and all involved persons) in Harris County where the same district courts do not hear both criminal and civil cases. It’s also critical because the entire in-person civil business above the JP court level goes through the same choke points (security checkpoints) at the same high-rise courthouse. Excellent conditions for Corona spread!

    If you don’t catch it during the security check, you will need to use one of the elevators, and it will be difficult to keep the WHO-recommended 1 metre (3 feet) person-to-person distance at rush times. Another reason to at least slow down the flow of visitors. Juror removal is a good start, but it’s not enough.

    The failure to do anything more than canceling jury trials still raises the prospect of high-rise courthouse as quarantined epicenter.

    If the civil courthouse is not closed for public business altogether, the local administrative judge should consider dividing the courts into two groups, and have them alternate by week, or such. They already have authority to exchange benches and sit for each other. Segregating streams of visitors by elevators and floors is probably not feasible logistically.

    The rationale for split/time-based rotation is that if one group of courts and their personnel gets exposed/infected and needs quarantine, you still have the other group as an alternative to keep business going.

    Further, all civil filings are already done electronically (except pro se litigants, who mostly file by snail mail, and can otherwise be turned away if they show and instructed to file by mail) which means that filing deadlines (e.g., notice of appeal) or statute of limitations (for new cases) can be met through electronic means.

    EXISTING CIVIL DISTRICT COURT CASE DISPOSITION REGIME:

    “Any case not disposed of within time standards promulgated by the Supreme Court under its Administrative Rules may be placed on a dismissal docket.” TEX. R. CIV. P. 165a(2). Under those rules, trial courts “should, so far as reasonably possible,” ensure that all civil jury cases, not brought under the Texas Family Code, are brought to trial or final disposition “[w]ithin 18 months from appearance date.” TEX. R. JUD. ADMIN. 6.1(a)(1).

    Also judges routinely grant extensions upon request, and the existence of an epidemic obviously is good cause for them to grant extension sua sponte.

    BOTTOM LINE: THE EXISTING TIME STANDARDS ARE NOT VERY EXACTING, AND THE COSTS OF CLOSURE/DELAY ARE LOW

    In family cases (mutual) TROs are routinely granted without a contested hearing and those stay in place for 14 days. So even those cases do not need an exception short of some immediate emergencies that can probably be better addressed through the criminal justice system.

    There are plenty of civil cases there linger on the docket for years, and on no due-process concerns are raised.

    Additionally, we have precedent for emergency measures from the disruptions caused by floods. While the perils and implications are drastically different, the courts previously operated under physical and logistical constraints and weathered the storm.

  8. Paul Kubosh says:

    Yes, maybe. I don’t have any personal knowledge not have spoken to anyone that leads me to believe that. Just my opinion from watching news reports.

  9. Wolfgang says:

    Update: Harris County County Law Library is suspending in-person services to mitigate infection risk
    http://www.harriscountylawlibrary.org/

  10. Paul Kubosh says:

    Just saw the press conference. They are shutting down the restaurants. I was very disappointed that they didn’t talk about the prisoners in Jail.