Travis Courts to reopen June 1

Travis County Criminal Courts slated to reopen June 1, but face tough decisions over jury trials

Chief Judge Brenda Kennedy has signed an order that will allow courts to “reopen” on June 1. I put that in quotes, because the court has of course remained open for essential settings such as determining bond for newly arrested defendants. But June 1 should see the courts more willing to entertain plea settings, and other slightly more “nonessential” type settings. Courts will likely still be minimizing the number of people who will be in the courtroom at any given time, so it is unclear if they will ease the requirements for defendants to be present if no action is being taken on the case.

Critically, jury trials are not yet slated to begin. Even if jury is not likely in your case, the threat of a looming jury trial can influence negotiations, usually in favor of the defendant. Without the possibility of trial, defendants lose much of their bargaining power. The right to trial is guaranteed by the constitution, so a solution must be found. The longer the courtroom stays empty, the more constitutional rights are tested and stressed.

These rights cannot be tossed aside lightly. And yet, it is impossible to ignore that sitting a jury in close proximity with each other is impossible in the current climate. Courts must decide how to proceed, and it is likely that the solution will need to be one that has not been seen before.

One defense attorney has suggested the use of school gyms which are currently sitting idle. This could allow the social distance necessary while preserving the defendant’s right to trial. One suggestion that should be off the table is the use of Zoom or any other teleconferencing software to conduct trials. Even overlooking the technical hurdles (which are considerable), the presence of the jury creates a tangible effect which cannot be recreated over Zoom. Witnesses who feel the pressure of 6 or 12 pairs of eyeballs are more likely to understand the gravity of their testimony.

No one argues that judges and courts aren’t in a tough situation. But this is a conundrum that MUST be solved as quickly as possible to preserve the rights of every defendant in the criminal justice system. As stated previously, it is not only those slated for trial whose rights are affected.

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