By Amanda Crouch
On May 4, 2020, the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) issued guidance regarding the operation of in-person court proceedings in Texas after June 1, 2020. The OCA is the state agency that provides resources and guidance for the efficient administration of state district and county courts in Texas. It operates under the direction and supervision of the Texas Supreme Court.
Pursuant to prior guidance from the OCA and the Texas Supreme Court, most Texas state courts have been conducting proceedings remotely since March 2020 due to COVID-19. Under the OCA’s May 4 guidance, Texas courts may begin holding nonessential in-person proceedings on June 1 with certain restrictions and conditions. The in-person proceedings must be consistent with OCA’s guidance, which was developed in consultation with medical advisors from the Department of State Health Services.
Under the guidance, the local administrative district judges in each county and the presiding judge of each municipal court must submit an operating plan for all courts in their county or city regarding measures that will be taken to protect litigants. The proposed plans must be submitted by June 1 to the Regional Presiding Judge for each court’s administrative judicial region. The operating plans must include the following components:
- precautions for judge and court staff health, including encouraging teleworking for judges and court staff whenever possible and feasible;
- staggered scheduling for counties where there are multiple judges and courtrooms in one building;
- protections for vulnerable populations; and
- considerations for social distancing, hygiene, screening, face coverings and cleanings.
The OCA’s guidance expressly provides Courts the ability to delay nonessential in-person proceedings past June 1 if the Court chooses to do so or is advised to delay in-person proceedings by local public health authorities. Accordingly, the OCA acknowledges that there may be hybrid hearings in certain proceedings and counties where some participants are remote and some are in person.
Regarding jury trials, the OCA anticipates that jury trials can safely resume in the summer and further guidance in that regard will likely be released in mid-May. While the OCA has not given express guidance on this issue, criminal and essential civil proceedings may be given priority over nonessential civil trials once jury trials resume.
As reflected in the guidance, court operations will continue to be impacted by COVID-19 even if nonessential in-person proceedings start on June 1. Since court operations plans will be county and city specific, all litigators and parties need to pay careful attention to the plan for their county or court and review and adhere to requirements of the court’s specific plan.
Amanda N. Crouch is a commercial litigator who regularly practices in state and federal court. Amanda has represented clients in a wide range of litigation matters, including oil and gas disputes, creditor representation, financial institution disputes, life insurance disputes, and defending personal injury claims.
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