TEXARKANA —Some local courts are postponing "non-essential" matters while others are proceeding as usual as the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold in the U.S.
All defendants scheduled to appear Tuesday before Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson at the Miller County jail complex courtroom should report for their hearings, Circuit Judge Carlton Jones said Monday afternoon. Jones said the county is continuing to monitor the situation.
Texas courts are delaying non-essential hearings, like divorce hearings and hearings in cases involving contract disputes, for example. Civil docket sheets in Bowie County are stamped with cancellation notices and criminal dockets include April court dates for defendants on bond.
"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 on Friday, 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."
Delays and trial date suspensions are being ordered in area federal courts as well. A general order issued Monday in the Eastern District of Texas, which includes the Texarkana Division, notes that all criminal and civil jury trials "from this date to May 1, 2020, are continued." The order addresses the Speedy Trial Act which affects criminal defendants.
"As of the date of this Order, there have been several confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the Eastern District of Texas. The CDC and other public health entities have recommended social distancing to limit further community spread of COVID-19. The Court is concerned with the health and safety of the public, Court employees, staff of other entities with whom Court personnel interact, litigants, counsel, interpreters, law enforcement officials, and jurors, who must work in close quarters to hear evidence and to deliberate," the order states. "All courthouses in the Eastern District of Texas, including the Clerk's Offices, Bankruptcy Court and Clerk's Offices, and Probation Offices, will remain open for business. No courthouse facility will be closed without a subsequent specific order issued by the Chief Judge of EDTX."
Any scheduled naturalization services, public tours and administration of oaths to attorneys are canceled and will be rescheduled "as appropriate."
Any person with a court hearing scheduled who has questions should contact their lawyer or the court to which their case is assigned.