August 01, 2020 Feature

Persevering in the Pandemic: Texas Courts

Justice Debra H. Lehrmann

This spring, courts across the nation found themselves presented with an unprecedented question. Not a new law or legal argument but something more practical: how to operate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With large gatherings banned, was a jury trial possible? If a party in a case was COVID-19 positive, could the party appear before a court? Were remote hearings using digital technology a valid substitute for in-person hearings? Could deadlines be extended? How were possession schedules affected by an extended spring break? Should a person be evicted when he/she was supposed to stay at home? With these questions vexing the country’s courts, the court system in Texas took the lead. The Texas Supreme Court, under its emergency power and its power to regulate the legal profession, issued orders to guide the courts in Texas through these uncertain times. Texas’s Office of Court Administration also worked diligently to facilitate the remote hearings allowed and encouraged by the Texas Supreme Court and to guide courts, attorneys, and parties in the use of digital technology. Here are some of the innovations and solutions used by the Texas courts.

Staying Home

The Texas Supreme Court began by issuing an emergency order authorizing courts to modify or suspend deadlines and to conduct remote proceedings. The order also required courts to use those measures when the enforcement of a deadline or an in-person proceeding might spread the virus. The court later issued another order expanding upon the first by prohibiting courts from conducting nonessential proceedings that would violate state and local restrictions and clarifying that the orders applied to all child-protection cases and deadlines.

Using Digital Technology

With in-person hearings on hold, remote hearings were the only option for parties with pressing matters. Texas’s Office of Court Administration quickly learned the ins and outs of digital platforms and coached judges, attorneys, and parties on how to use those platforms to conduct hearings remotely. As of this writing, the Office of Court Administration had overseen about 50,000 remote hearings totaling almost 84,000 hours with over 174,000 participants. The Texas Supreme Court held its last two rounds of oral arguments for the 2019–20 term remotely through a digital platform and livestreamed videos of the arguments on the Internet.

Possession Schedules

The pandemic hit just before spring break. In response, schools across the country extended their spring breaks or announced a second week of spring break. Then schools closed for the rest of the semester. The Texas Supreme Court issued an order clarifying that child possession and access schedules would not be affected by these school closures and would be controlled by the original school schedule. The court later issued an order clarifying that stay-at-home orders likewise did not affect possession and access schedules.

Eviction Proceedings

It can be difficult to stay at home when you’ve just been evicted, and many people were having trouble paying rent after losing their jobs in the pandemic. The court issued an order pausing residential eviction proceedings.

Federal Aid

With Congress’s passage of the CARES Act, the federal government began disbursing funds to families across the nation to help them weather the crisis. For some families though, this relief money was immediately targeted for debt collection. To ensure that the federal aid served its intended purpose, the Texas Supreme Court paused garnishments and default judgments in consumer debt collection cases.

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Justice Debra H. Lehrmann

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Justice Debra H. Lehrmann has served on the Supreme Court of Texas since 2010, having been elected to the court twice following her gubernatorial appointment. She serves as the court’s liaison to the State Bar of Texas, the State Bar Judicial Section’s Judicial Ethics Committee, the Board of Disciplinary Appeals, the Texas Association for Court Administration, the State Bar Family Law Section, the State Bar Family Law Council, and the Texas Attorney–Mediator Coalition. With a total of over 30 years’ judicial experience, she was a trial judge in Tarrant County for 23 years prior to her appellate service and has served the Bar in leadership capacities on both state and national levels.