March 13, 2020

Travis County Criminal Court Update Regarding COVID-19

Added May 12, 2020

CLICK HERE to view the second amended emergency order for all Travis County criminal courts regarding COVID-19 effective 5/12/2020

Added April 28, 2020

CLICK HERE to view the first amended emergency order for all Travis County criminal courts regarding COVID-19 effective 4/28/2020.

From an email from Presiding Judge Brenda Kennedy sent on Sat. March 14, 2020.

See the agreed upon Emergency Order affecting the operations of the Travis County Criminal Courts during the time frame of Monday, March 16 through Friday, May 8 2020.

The following was communicated on Fri. March 13, 2020 by Presiding Judge Brenda Kennedy:

The Office of Court Administration has recommended that all courts should suspend large gatherings or groups of people which include jury trials and large docket calls until April 1. Therefore, for our upcoming weeks through April 1, it is recommended that all juries requested and scheduled to be summoned up until that date (4/1), be cancelled and not summoned until after April 1. This date could change or be extended, as we have not yet received any directives from the Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals. Should the Court of Criminal Appeals or Supreme Court of Texas, or Travis County send further direction extending beyond that date, or, the Travis County Commissioners determine that building occupancy safety and limits have been lowered, so that even smaller gatherings should not be held in Travis County buildings, you will be informed as soon as I become aware. Please get your attorneys to contact their respective court impacted regarding the jury settings that are now occurring or being scheduled to occur between now and April 1 until further notice. If any other types of settings are involved, please contact that particular court for any requested resets.  If you have a setting that is of an “emergency” nature, please contact that court for which the setting is to be held for further directions.  See the below info:

Brenda Kennedy
Presiding Judge, Travis County Criminal Courts

coronavirus legal news

Updated Coronavirus Guidance Released for Texas Courts, Clerks
The Office of Court Administration has released updated guidance for Texas courts, clerks and staff on novel coronavirus (COVID-19). — Texas Bar Blog

Texas Chief Justice Hecht on Coronavirus: “We Still Have to Do Justice”
“Texas judges need to weigh the health and well-being of individuals with the requirement that the courts remain open and accessible to those who seek justice,” Chief Justice Hecht said. (Subscription required) – Texas Lawyer

Dallas Civil Juries Canceled for the Next Month Amid Coronavirus Concerns
The decision only applies to citizens called for jury duty at the George Allen Civil Courthouse and J.P. Courts. It does not apply to criminal trials at the Frank Crowley Criminal Courthouse. – Dallas Morning News

Jefferson County Postpones Jury Trials Amid  Coronavirus Concerns
Jeffferson County will postpone civil jury trials effective Monday, Jefferson County 58th District Court Judge Kent Walston said Thursday. – Beaumont Enterprise

court procedures for the 2019 novel coronavirus (covid-19)

Updated Guidance #1 (Issued 3/12/2020)

  • If a court deems that non-essential (see below), in-person proceedings may pose an unnecessary or unreasonable risk to participants, court staff, or the public, the court should avoid that risk, when possible, by simple delay or by a telephone or video remote appearance. Our suggestion is that you follow this practice until at least April 1.
  • Essential proceedings include, but are not limited to, criminal magistration proceedings, CPS removal hearings, temporary restraining orders / temporary injunctions, juvenile detention hearings, family violence protective orders, and certain mental health proceedings.
  • Courts should schedule or suspend proceedings to avoid the gathering of large groups of people until at least April 1, including jury trials and large docket calls.
  • Courts should publicly encourage persons with COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms, a fever, or who are coughing or sneezing, to contact the court before appearing. Courts should also publicly encourage attorneys who know that clients, witnesses, or others have such a condition to alert the court in advance. The court should make reasonable accommodations and reschedule appearances and hearings as needed.
  • You may wish to consult with your local health authority for additional guidance on the timing of the suspension of proceedings as conditions in the local community may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
  • Courts should implement telephonic or video remote appearances for all proceedings which may occur remotely.
  • Please be aware that the Open Courts provision of the Constitution will generally require that the public have access to proceedings. If you hold telephonic or video remote hearings, you should consider a method by which the public can have access.

Request for Notice
Should your court choose to suspend proceedings for a period of time, please notify OCA by email at courtclosures@txcourts.gov with information about the closure or fill out the webform. OCA will post the information on our court closure website in an effort to provide public notice of the suspension.

Initial Guidance (Issued 03/05/2020)
Previous Preparation Work: The Supreme Court of Texas established the Task Force to Ensure Judicial Readiness in Times of Emergencies (JRITE) in 2008 and charged the Task Force with reviewing and updating its plan in 2016. Included in JRITE’s work is an interim plan and other resources, including resources for preparing and responding to pandemics such as COVID-19. To view these resources, please visit http://txcourts.gov/organizations/policy-funding/task-force-on-judicial-emergency-preparedness/jrite-resource-archives/. The ultimate goal of the preparedness plan is to allow courts to operate in a way that protects the health and safety of everyone at the court facilities and to keep courts open to ensure the justice system continues.

Personal Protection/Prevention:
The most important steps in responding to the virus is prevention. The CDC has issued the following prevention tips:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • DSHS has recommended to OCA that you maintain at least 6-8 feet between you and a person who is symptomatic to reduce the risk of spread of the virus.
  • DSHS has indicated that evidence shows that the virus is not able to survive in the ventilation system.
  • If you have a proceeding involving a person who is symptomatic and the proceeding must continue, attempt to isolate that proceeding to reduce the risk of interaction with others.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Judges, court employees, attorneys, or litigants who are sick should be encouraged to stay home and to seek medical attention.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue (or into your arm if a tissue is not available); then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a household cleaning spray or wipe. A list of products recommended by DSHS for this purpose is available at https://www.americanchemistry.com/novel-coronavirus-fighting-products-list.pdf.
  • While some might think that the use of a face mask is necessary or advisable, CDC does not recommend the use of a mask for people who are well, as they are less effective at preventing infection and are in short supply for health care workers. However, CDC and DSHS has recommended that courts consider providing face masks (the common surgical masks can be used) to individuals who are showing symptoms of COVID-19 to help avoid spread of the virus to others.
  • Wash your hand often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Preparation:
While there is currently no need for alarm, courts should prepare now to ensure a proper response if an outbreak occurs.

  • Courts should consider and identify who is authorized to make decisions in an emergency including evacuation (partial or total) and the closing of court operations.
  • Courts should consider which functions are essential and must continue if an outbreak occurs.
  • Essential functions are typically divided into those that are necessary in the first 7 days, 7-30 days, 30-90 days, and 90+ days.
  • Examples of essential functions that must occur in the first 7 days include: criminal magistration proceedings, CPS removal hearings, temporary restraining orders/temporary injunctions, juvenile detention hearings, family violence protective orders.
  • Courts are encouraged to delay non-essential functions in the event of an outbreak and to reduce the need for large numbers of possibly infected people to congregate. This may include the need to consider delay of jury trials.
  • Courts should consider which staff are essential and which staff could stay home if court functions are to be continued.
  • Courts should consider which proceedings could occur by telephonic or video remote appearances. This may include using “low-tech” solutions such as teleconferencing, Facetime, Skype, or some other common remote appearance tool.
  • Courts should plan how to notify self-represented litigants, witnesses, and others of the remote appearance technology.
  • Some courts have begun to place wording on orders setting hearing and docket notices reminding attorneys/parties to contact the court if they are ill.
  • Courts should consider how to promptly communicate the activation of plans to judges, courts staff, and the public.
  • The Office of Court Administration and the State Bar of Texas have a communication plan that allows for prompt notification of the bar and public notices; however, additional local notifications will likely be necessary.
  • Some courts have posted notices or entered orders encouraging or requiring attorneys and parties to notify the court if they (or their clients) are experiencing symptoms.

Quarantine:
While the state and local health authorities generally have responsibility for establishing quarantine control methods, a court may need to become involved if a person does not comply with those control orders from the health authority. Chapter 81, Health and Safety Code, sets out the procedures in such cases. A bench book at https://www.law.uh.edu/healthlaw/HLPIBenchBook.pdf provides guidance and forms for district judges who are responsible for hearing these cases.

To ensure quick response and continuity, the Regional Presiding Judges and Chief Justice Nathan Hecht have identified several judges from each region of the state who are being assigned to hear proceedings under Chapter 81, Health and Safety Code. These judges will be on-call for the proceedings should the need arise in an emergency or after-hours situation. Your regional presiding judge can provide you additional information on the assignments in your region.

Judge Brenda P. Kennedy
P
residing Judge
Travis County Criminal Courts