By Terry Cook Jun. 9, 2020
NACo County News
The public health emergency caused by COVID-19 has impacted daily life across the country and around the world. In Williamson County, Texas, our justice system responded to the coronavirus through innovation, ingenuity and a commitment to service.
Our courts in Williamson County have long embraced technology, but the disaster declaration accelerated the pace of innovation. On March 13, the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals ordered all hearings be held remotely.
Under the leadership of local Administrative Judges Betsy Lambeth of the 425th District Court and John McMaster, County Court-at-Law Four, emergency plans ensuring that the justice system continued to function during the pandemic were activated.
The first step was to identify critical functions, including child protection hearings, temporary restraining orders and protective orders. Probable cause hearings (magistration) that must occur within 24-48 hours from the time of arrest were also identified as critical.
If a probable cause is found, the magistrate determines whether to set a personal bond and orders bond conditions and other statutory conditions. The magistrate also determines if there are any mental health issues and orders an evaluation if necessary, which is conducted by our local mental health authority through telemedicine.
Next, the judges assembled a team to determine how operations could be modified to achieve their goal. Our judges, clerks, court staff, IT personnel, sheriff and juvenile services together adjusted operational plans and assessed technological options to ensure essential functions continued, and the public had access to justice.
Our IT Department provided judges with Microsoft Teams, the very popular Zoom, WebEx and CourtCall as options to hold court proceedings.
Court staff created detailed written procedures for hearing participants. Judges and attorneys provided feedback as this process unfolded.