After Governor Abbot announced that he was lifting regulations involving mask‑wearing and social distancing, it was not long before the OCA put their two cents in on the issue. Their recent opinion can be summarized by the lyrics of that old Mamas and Papas song. Now courts can go where they want to go and do what they want to do. The OCA left it up to each county to be restrictive or not, continue Zoom hearings or not, or go back to 2019 procedurally speaking. The question is, is opening up the court system good for the rural practitioner? The answer is… it depends!
COVID rules put the brakes on jury trials. This can be good. If you have someone out on bond, time usually works on the Defendant’s side. The backlog makes more minor state jail felony cases and third‑degrees look even smaller to the judges and DAs. When there is a huge backlog, do you really want to go to court on a mandatory probation state jail felony case, or give them a 12.44 (b) and move it down the road? Opening up the court system to the good old days may lurch the criminal justice machine back to the days when these cases were taken much more seriously.
COVID made courts shift to Zoom hearings. This can be also good for the criminal practitioner. You can do court hearings and jail visits in your pajamas and slippers. Just wearing a dress shirt and tie over them, or move the camera, so it only shows your face! This makes these standard time‑wasting activities a snap. This has allowed the rural criminal defense attorney to be much more efficient, sometimes allowing them to be working on one case while in the Zoom waiting room on another. This is especially so when you practice in numerous counties. Opening up the court system could make our jobs move from being a quasi stay‑cation to having to dress up and go to court again like the old days.
COVID rules put the brakes on jury trials. This can be very bad. If you have some languishing in jail, the possibility of a jury trial looks very remote. Your client will probably wait years, if they have not already been, to have their day in court. The most heartbreaking scenario is a person accused of serious crime, has a high bond that they can’t make, and claim to be innocent. If the powers that be wont lower the bond, they’re stuck. If they genuinely are innocent, that’s an enormous injustice. Hopefully, you have gotten a good investigator to get some exculpatory information to grease the wheels of justice somehow. But if not, this is a horrible nightmare. Opening up the court system could really help these people get their day in court.
COVID has made courts shift to Zoom hearings. This can also be very bad. As we all know, getting into court, meeting the prosecutor face to face, seeing your client face to face, and having the judge pressure both parties to get things done can help resolve or get cases dismissed. When dealing with everyone in an impersonal zoom hearing, the immediacy and intimacy of in‑person contact are lost. These intangibles fuel the process. Opening up the court system can make innocent defendants get off the hook, and guilty ones gain a better result. Opening up the court system, in this case, would be positive.
In conclusion, COVID has been a double‑edged sword for the rural practitioner. Guilty folks on bond have enjoyed a long continuance, perhaps using the time to gain employment, get help for their addictions, and build a resume for a better resolution down the road. Zoom hearings have allowed the criminal practitioner to be more efficient, and it has made it easier logistically to practice in other counties. On the flip side, COVID has caused innocent folks may be languishing in jails for months or years before a trial. The lack of in‑person hearings has caused an enormous backlog, which hurts anyone trying to resolve a case.
Long story short, we will have to roll with whatever happens, just like we did a year ago when the system was upended.
Note: In the March edition, From the Front Porch was actually written by Dean Watts, not Clay Steadman. The appropriate person has been properly flogged.