As I write this column, the number of coronavirus cases is on the rise in Texas. Some hospitals are nearing capacity and health care resources are being stretched thin. To our colleagues and their families in some of the hardest hit areas of Texas, you are in our thoughts and prayers and we stand ready to help. We miss the courtroom and socializing with our colleagues. We are tired of wearing a mask and talking thru plexi-glass. Zoom has been a lifesaver, but we are now Zoomed out. As cases rise, we may have to deal with another statewide shutdown in some form. Our anxiety has not subsided, as we just do not know what the future holds for us or what practicing in the courtroom will look like in six months. This uncertainty is nerve-racking and stressful and continues to take a toll on our professional and personal lives.
There is good news, as there may be a vaccine available soon. Hopefully, we can get back to normal sooner rather than later. In the meantime, what can we do to get our practice back in order? I will give you my thoughts on that question next month.
On November 11, 2020, the Texas Supreme Court ordered that no in-person jury trials could be held prior to February 1, 2021, extending the previous deadline of December 1, 2020. The exception continues to be that a judge can seek to have an in-person jury trial by submitting their operating plan to the local administrative district judge for that county and the regional presiding judge for approval. Specifically, there have been some judges in rural areas throughout the State that have obtained this approval and conducted in-person jury trials. My understanding is that jury selection was held at large venues and not at the courthouse, with restrictions in place for social distancing, and the wearing of a face shield or mask, etc. While I have not been personally involved in any of those jury trials, I believe the success of those proceedings has been mixed. I suspect that this perception of success is likely based upon your role in the proceedings. I do believe the courts and the Office of Court Administration should be applauded for their efforts to address the problems presented by the pandemic, but we all need to be mindful of the fact that there continues to be real health concerns and risks which must be safeguarded and taken into account when making these decisions.
It appears that judges and prosecutors are having conversations on how to resume in-person proceedings at the courthouse. I do not believe that local criminal defense attorneys have been included in those conversations, and this concerns me as it should all of us. We are required to be a zealous advocate, but how can we do that when we have serious concerns of the health risks that would necessarily exist during a live jury trial proceeding. Now, how do we, as rural criminal defense attorneys, inject ourselves into that conversation? While we may be friends with the judges and prosecutors in our rural areas, our duty is to our clients, and keeping them and ourselves safe for the sake of our families and loved ones. Our health and safety concerns must be part of that conversation. In some of the surrounding counties that I practice in we have received information that there have been positive Covid-19 test results in several of the county courthouses. In rural areas this can lead to serious concerns because the local county courthouse is not only the hub of all legal matters, but a centralized point of contact for all county sponsored services. That is why it is important to make calls to the judges and prosecutors and invite ourselves into that conversation for developing a safe return plan to the courtroom. Staying in touch with our local community leaders and courthouse personnel is critical to us keeping ourselves safe and healthy. It has been over eight months since the pandemic creeped into my community, and it is easy to slip into a routine of self-isolation and start binge watching on Netflix. In reflecting back on the last eight months, I know I can do better in making sure my clients, friends, and colleagues are doing well and staying safe.
A friend of mine had concerns about his and his client’s safety and health with regards to a scheduled November jury trial setting. He utilized TCDLA’s resources and successfully argued for and had his request for a continuance granted. He may have to file it again as this problem is not going away anytime soon. This is a situation many of us are having to confront as the pandemic rages. While this is not an easy conversation to have with the court, it is necessary. When pressing this issue with the court, make sure your client agrees with you regarding the continuance, and they are aware that they are likely waiving a speedy trial complaint. My suspicions are that some of the courts seeking permission to proceed with a jury trial at this time involve cases where the client has demanded their right to a speedy trial.
Practicing law in a rural area during this pandemic has led me to rethink my practice and I have some thoughts to share with you:
- Remember where you come from;
- Know where you are going;
- Check in on friends and colleagues;
- Stay in regular contact with your clients;
- Remain accessible via Zoom, by telephone or in-person;
- Stay in regular contact with your local judges, prosecutors, court clerks and personnel;
- Protect your client;
- Protect your family;
- Remember you cannot protect anyone if you do not protect yourself; and
- Be thankful for what you have and do not obsess about the rest.
The Rural Practice Committee continues to meet monthly. We are developing helpful hints and a checklist for use when we return to the courtroom. This information will be posted on the TCDLA Rural Practice list serve. Each member on this committee is dedicated to making themselves available to assist you and address any of your concerns. If something unusual or exciting happens in your neck of the woods, please let us know how we can help.
Lastly, I take my hat off to all of us that have endured the hardships of this pandemic and continue to advocate on behalf of the accused during these trying times. We have continued, unphased and undaunted, despite impossible circumstances and a myriad of the Governor’s executive and emergency orders, to protect and preserve our client’s rights. Stay strong and vigilant. Remember TCDLA has your back, from west Texas to east Texas and all parts in between. We are TCDLA strong.