Only one group of people seem anxious to re-open courthouses and start criminal trials again. It isn’t us, and it isn’t prosecutors. In conversations with elected District Attorneys all over the state, I have learned that prosecutors don’t want to risk their health, the safety of their communities, or having convictions overturned due to constitutional violations.
The public isn’t banging down courthouse doors, either. Many prospective jurors are struggling with health concerns, unemployment, and the possibility that schools might partially or fully close this fall. Not to mention a growing unease as COVID-19 numbers bounce back and forth between disturbing and alarming.
It is not even the Texas Supreme Court, whose emergency orders regarding criminal matters reveal a granular misunderstanding of the differences between civil and criminal practice.
It is Texas trial judges.
True, there are many judges who recognize that the health and constitutional perils of jury trials during the pandemic far outweigh the benefit of appearing to get back to normal. If you see judges and their staffs postponing cases, waiving court appearances and otherwise acting responsibly, be sure to thank them. Good judges and staffs don’t get nearly enough positive feedback when they do the right thing.
But there is a rather large, vocal group of trial judges who are misreading their constituents and apparently have an inflated sense of self. Here is a harsh truth for them: Most voters don’t know who you are.
If you were to walk the voting line on Election Day and ask people to name three judges in their area, most couldn’t do it. Further, if you were to ask voters about the size of a particular judge’s trial docket, most people would have no idea what you were talking about. Too many judges are disconnected from what the public wants or even knows about them.
Perhaps most troubling is the false narrative that some judges are spreading to justify restarting trials. They claim it’s because their dockets are full of people — especially those languishing in jail — who are demanding trials because they want to have “their day in court.” With exceptions, that is mostly baloney. Prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that criminal cases tend to get weaker, not stronger, with the passage of time.
But if judges are pushing pandemic trials out of genuine concern for the speedy trial rights of the accused, there is a simple solution. Grant every defense request for a jury trial continuance during the pandemic. Lawyers with clients who really want a fast trial won’t ask for postponements. Also, if a defendant is bondable but trapped in jail due to a high bond or the unconstitutional GA-13 Order from Gov. Greg Abbott, reduce the bond and let the person out.
If there is a County or District Court judge anywhere in Texas who disagrees with what I’ve written and wants to talk about it, feel free to call my Houston office or the TCDLA home office at 512-478-2514 and ask for my cell number. Text me.
But to any judge who pushes forward with a pandemic jury trial over a defense lawyer’s objection: If something goes wrong, you will own this. You have the power to avoid disaster, and your constituents look to you for leadership.