Bexar County courts are preparing to resume in-person jury trials on June 1 after more than a year of proceedings decided only by a judge.
Bexar County courts shut down in-person jury proceedings when the coronavirus pandemic started and shifted to a virtual space where feasible, Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th Criminal District Court told county commissioners at their Tuesday meeting. But the suspension of jury trials resulted in a backlog of cases.
Rangel told the commissioners court that he set a June 1 date for restarting jury trials after talking with local doctors and examining the local coronavirus positivity rate and cases per thousand people. Those numbers put Bexar County in a “low transmission” stage, which makes in-person jury trials a feasible option, he said.
“By that time, about 50% of the local population should be vaccinated,” he said. “We’re estimating that by October, November 75% to 85% of the local population would be vaccinated.”
Jury selection for trials will start in May, with temperature checks, social distancing, and mask requirements in place.
Restarting jury trials will allow the court system to begin addressing the case backlog that was already fairly significant before the pandemic but has dramatically increased since then, Rangel said.
“Now with COVID, our backlogs are up on the criminal side about 70% than what they were pre-COVID,” he said. “So it’s going to take an additional coming together of forces … moving through that many cases is going to put a lot of pressure on the clerk’s office, both county clerk and district clerk, as well as the sheriff, so it is going to be something that we have to tackle.”
As the local administrative judge, Rangel has oversight on how the Bexar County district courts are run. He has implemented safety protocols in line with the Texas Supreme Court emergency orders regarding the coronavirus pandemic; the most recent one allows in-person court proceedings and jury trials to occur so long as coronavirus prevention methods are adopted.
Rangel detailed required coronavirus prevention standards in an April 1 order, which also outlined how courts would alternate their proceedings to limit how many people would be in the courthouse at one time. Facilities will also have temperature-screening kiosks and free-standing air filtration units to “scrub” the air of droplets that may transmit the coronavirus. People will be required to maintain physical distance from each other and wear face coverings.
Anyone – including jurors, witnesses, attorneys, court personnel, and defendants – recently exposed to the coronavirus, who has symptoms of the virus, or who has tested positive will not be allowed to participate in in-person trials.
Rangel alerted Bexar County judges of his intent to restart jury trials in an April 13 letter. In it, he cautioned that plans could change, especially with new coronavirus variants emerging.
“… Even with increasing vaccinations, we are not out of the woods yet,” he wrote in the letter.
The courts will begin printing jury summons Tuesday and mailing them out to Bexar County residents Thursday, Rangel said. No one who has concerns about contracting the coronavirus will be forced to appear for jury duty.
When people receive jury summons, those documents will also include information about speaking to a judge via videoconference ahead of scheduled jury duty about any exemptions or COVID-19 concerns they may have, Rangel said.
“Anyone that has a COVID concern then could be postponed to the future, so nobody would be actually forced to come into the courthouse as long as a judge listens to that concern and then determines that there is good cause to do that,” Rangel said.
Judges can conduct remote jury proceedings without the plaintiff or defendant’s consent, except in criminal cases where a defendant faces jail time, Rangel said. Judges may also conduct hybrid proceedings, where non-juror court participants such as witnesses may participate remotely via videoconference.
“What’s important is that upon request and with good cause shown, judges shall allow anybody who wants to participate remotely to do so,” Rangel said. “So nobody will be forced into the courthouse if they have a COVID fear. And so by doing so then that particular person will be Zoomed in while everybody else on the court” appears in person.
Commissioners commended Rangel and the courts system for their work throughout the pandemic. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff especially lauded the courts’ adoption of virtual hearings on matters such as bail hearings, which he said helped keep jail population numbers manageable.
“We keep a real close eye on the number of people that are in the jail and whether we’re getting bogged up or not,” he said. “And [the jail had] under 3,700 yesterday. So that really clearly shows that the judges have been working very hard through these COVID [pandemic].”