When the state of emergency for COVID-19 was declared in March 2020, the Williamson County Justice Center, assisted by county departments such as IT and others, was able to conduct business throughout the shutdown.
“We knew that the ‘wheels of justice’ had to keep turning, so we did what you do in a desperate situation, we came together and figured it out,” said Judge Donna King of the 26th district court.
They didn’t just figure it out, they excelled at conducting daily business and holding court hearings virtually.
King also credits the support from the Commissioners Court.
This March, the emergency order permitted courts to begin holding in-person proceedings following COVID-19 prevention standards but encouraged them to continue remote proceedings through June 1.
King held her first in-person jury trial on April 13, describing it as “almost a feeling of relief to be back in a jury trial.”
Although the logistics of the proceedings looked very different from the prepandemic jury trial, they had turned a corner and their hard work of planning paid off.
She described feeling a sense of pride that those summoned to appear for jury duty honored their responsibility to the community. They showed up, participated and seemed to share in this “corporate” sense of relief that the proceedings were well-organized and COVID-protocol compliant.
While virtual jury trials were conducted during the shutdown in other counties, Wilco courts didn’t, citing a lack of control over procedure and adherence to the rules of trial, exposure to information outside the proceeding and constraints on litigants’ rights to confront their accusers fully and appropriately.
Before the shutdown, jury trials involved large cattle calls of prospective jurors and a flurry of activity to see which case would be selected, all in-person. The court now has implemented limitations on the number of cases heard per day and plans that reduce the number of people convened at the courthouse.