Texas Attorneys, Jurors Want Temp. Checks, Masks In Court

By Katie Buehler
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Law360 (June 24, 2020, 7:57 PM EDT) -- A large majority of Texas attorneys and potential jurors said courthouses would have to conduct temperature screenings for every visitor, provide ample hand sanitizer and enact universal face mask requirements for them to feel comfortable enough to return to in-person proceedings, survey results released Wednesday show.

About 75% of 850 eligible jurors and 3,744 licensed attorneys who responded to separate surveys said they would feel comfortable returning to court if courthouses conducted temperature screenings and sent any visitors with fevers home. Of the attorneys surveyed, 41% said the screenings should be mandatory.

The survey results were presented Wednesday over Zoom by the National Center for State Courts and the Texas Office of Court Administration.

Hand sanitizer availability was also a high priority for the attorneys surveyed, with 80% saying easy access would make them feel more comfortable and 47% saying it should be required. Meanwhile, 70% of potential jurors said strict social distancing enforcement and face mask requirements were their top concerns.

OCA Director David Slayton said during the presentation that the data collected in both surveys will help state courts continue to develop best practices for virtual and in-person jury trials during and after the coronavirus pandemic. He said there are currently 10 trials scheduled in the Lone Star State as part of an experimental program, eight of which are criminal.

"I think the bottom line is that we don't have enough data yet, but we're working on collecting that over the next couple of weeks," Slayton said.

Most attorneys who responded to the survey said they're not yet ready to be back in court.

Only 13% of attorneys who responded said they thought in-person jury trials should resume this summer. The largest group, 46%, think trials should resume in either fall 2020 or the beginning of 2021 and 31% said trials shouldn't resume until a vaccine is developed.

The Texas Supreme Court has delayed in-person jury trials outside of the OCA experiment until Aug. 1. In the meantime, Texas has pioneered virtual court proceedings, holding close to 10,000 Zoom court meetings — more than 300 a day — in the first month of stay-at-home orders and holding the country's first Zoom jury trial on May 18.

While the number of virtual proceedings has shot up over the past couple of months, with the OCA finding that 76% of surveyed attorneys had at least one hearing during the pandemic, the idea of virtual courtrooms received mixed reviews from attorneys and potential jurors.

Attorneys who were asked to fill out the OCA's online questionnaire between June 10 and 17 still prefer in-person court proceedings. The survey results show that while 85% of attorneys would recommend remote hearings to colleagues and clients and only about 7% reported negative impressions of them, 44% just don't think virtual hearings measure up to in-person alternatives.

The NCSC's survey of potential jurors, conducted over the phone and online between June 8 and 11, found that every two out of three jurors would be equally likely to turn out for in-person proceedings with safety measures in place as they would for virtual proceedings. Women, people of color and older residents were less likely to show up to either type of jury duty during the pandemic.

Houston residents also reported they were less likely than residents of the Dallas, Austin and San Antonio areas to show up to jury duty, according to the survey.

About half of the jurors said they wouldn't attend jury duty because they had a family member with an underlying health condition, they were a primary caregiver for an elderly family member or they couldn't secure child care during the pandemic.

Karl Agne, a founding partner of public opinion research firm GBAO who worked on the potential juror survey, said those reasons along with the impact of the pandemic on other parts of jurors' lives are important to note.

"The impact of the pandemic on emotional or mental health has been much greater than physical health," he said. "The implications of that for the jury pool are pretty clear."

Agne also cautioned that the survey answers should be viewed in context since both were completed before Texas started reporting record-high numbers of daily confirmed cases and hospitalizations since reopening efforts began.

The OCA is currently developing a report on the attorney survey results that it plans to release soon.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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