TEXARKANA — Courts in Texas and Arkansas are taking steps to reduce the chance of spreading the COVID-19 virus but they aren't shutting down.
"Essential court functions, such as criminal magistration proceedings, Child Protective Services removal hearings, temporary restraining orders/temporary injunctions, juvenile detention hearings, family violence protective orders, will continue and when possible, will be conducted through electronic or telephonic means should the judge hearing that case consider it necessary," said Texas 5th District Judge Bill Miller, referring to Bowie, Cass and Red River counties.
"The Texas Office of Court Administration and the presiding regional judges, including the presiding regional judge covering Bowie, Cass and Red River counties, have now recommended that all jury trials and non-essential hearings be suspended through the end of March. Consistent with that recommendation, in our courts, all jury trials scheduled for the weeks of March 17 and March 24 will be postponed so as not to gather a large crowd of individuals from across the county (for jury duty)," Miller said.
"Further cancellation of non-essential hearings and jury trials will be considered in conjunction with any orders issued by national, state or local health authorities, as well as any orders issued by the county judge and/or sheriff in relation to courthouse operations as well as Texas Office of Court Administration at that time."
Hearings to determine if someone arrested for a crime should be released on bond or held in jail will continue as will hearings for criminal defendants currently awaiting trial and in jail.
"At this juncture, the district courts and the county court at law will continue with jail docket hearings, but will be postponing March hearings for defendants currently released on bond," Miller said. "Other non-essential civil and family law hearings, unless ordered otherwise, will also be postponed through March beginning March 16."
Lawyers and parties representing themselves in court proceedings are encouraged to contact court staff with questions. Miller said discussions are ongoing as to whether some court personnel will be permitted to work from home using remote technologies. Miller said court personnel are vigilantly watching for people who appear sick and that "disinfection strategies" are being implemented to minimize possible exposure to the public and courthouse staffers.
The Texas Office of Court Administration has set up a "current and upcoming closures" page to help notify litigants and the public about court closures: txcourts.gov/programs-services/court-security/emergency-court-preparedness/closures/
"While Courtrooms are public, and should remain open, if court personnel identifies an individual displaying symptoms of a contagious nature, the individuals will be asked to remove themselves from the courtroom/courthouse and reschedule any pending matter. The courts do not intend to close the courtrooms and any electronic or telephonic hearings will be conducted in a manner to facilitate open courts," Miller said.
Anyone involved in a criminal or civil court matter should contact their lawyer or if self-represented, the court to which their case is assigned, with questions about scheduled hearings in Texas or Arkansas.
Arkansas 8th Judicial District Circuit Judge Carlton Jones, who serves Miller and Lafayette counties, said the judges in his jurisdiction will continue to conduct essential court business such as those for jailed defendants, juveniles in detention and emergency child custody or welfare matters. Non-essential hearings may be postponed.
Jones said Miller County's judges are going ahead with hearings currently scheduled for criminal defendants free on bond or those scheduled to appear in district court for misdemeanor and traffic offenses at this time. Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson criminal docket scheduled for Tuesday will go forward as planned and bonded defendants scheduled to appear should plan to be in court, Jones said. Anyone who is sick should contact their lawyer for guidance.
Jones said the Arkansas Supreme Court is providing guidance to Arkansas courts as to which essential court functions must continue and which may be delayed.
"We're getting updates and we will act accordingly," Jones said.
Meetings with probation and parole offices may also be affected. Those currently serving terms of probation or parole should contact their local office to determine if a face-to-face visit is required or if contacts can be made via telephone or other means. Bowie County Chief Community Supervision and Corrections Officer Terri Giles said her office is monitoring the situation and has already implemented some changes meant to discourage virus spread. Giles said Bowie County now has technology which allows probationers to be drug tested with a fingerprint.
Continue to visit the Gazette's website for the latest updates on COVID-19 closures and information.