A sign indicates a courtroom inside the Bexar County Courthouse.
A sign indicates a courtroom inside the Bexar County Courthouse. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Mandatory jury duty has been put off for another month, thanks to the local administrative judge for district courts in Bexar County.

Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th Criminal District Court signed an extension to the order prohibiting in-person jury trials on Monday. He originally issued the order in March at the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“My order still bans jury trials in the courthouse, and it also bans forcing attorneys to have jury trials through remote proceedings, like a Zoom jury trial,” Rangel said.

The Texas Supreme Court limited in-person jury trials up until Sept. 1, but Rangel said he wanted to take even more precautions in the name of public health and safety.

Meanwhile, jury selection for the county’s first virtual jury trial is underway. A July 23 press release said that about 200 Bexar County residents were sent jury summons with instructions to respond by Aug. 12. 

“As a first for Bexar County, these virtual juror summonses are essential to keep the wheels of justice turning with the help of our community, which is needed now more than ever,” said Judge Antonia Arteaga, of the 57th District Court, in a statement. 

Both parties must agree to a virtual jury trial, Rangel said. Bexar County’s first virtual jury trial is scheduled for Aug. 19 and is a civil case over an automobile accident. The format is mostly the same, but some structural changes, Rangel said. For example, instead of 12 jury members, there will be six. 

“There’s a lot of little issues that [each party is] agreeing to,” he said. “A lot of it is consent of the parties, and they’re trying it in a way that will accommodate for the [circumstances]. 

Other places have experimented with jury trials conducted over video conference technology; the first jury trial held over Zoom in the United States was believed to be a Collin County case in May. That trial, which was a summary jury trial, made headlines not only for the novelty but over the fact that a juror left the proceedings during a break and did not hear the judge calling jurors back.

Jurors without internet access at home may use hotspots and wireless devices provided by BiblioTech. The typical exemptions for jury duty still apply, according to a Bexar County press release. But the jury summons did not include the usual language that specified a fine for not responding, Rangel said.

“We don’t want anybody to feel any sort of threat as it relates to this particular summons, because we understand a lot of folks don’t understand – it’s not the typical circumstance,” he said. “We don’t want to penalize anybody for essentially a brand new situation that we’ve never had to go through the process with.”

The response rate from potential jurors has matched jury summons from pre-pandemic, with around 91 percent of those summoned responding, Rangel said.

Though this format is first being tested in Bexar County for a civil trial, Rangel said he does not anticipate virtual jury trials for criminal issues.

“In criminal court, the constitutional issues are more complex,” he said. “The issue is somebody’s liberty. Because of different amendments we have to be concerned about … I just don’t foresee it.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.