Houston, Dallas Courts Call Off Jury Trials, Citing COVID-19

By Michelle Casady
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Law360 (March 12, 2020, 1:03 PM EDT) -- The Southern District of Texas announced Thursday it's suspending all federal jury trials until April 1, and Harris County courts, which include Houston, have suspended civil jury trials for the rest of the month and suspended criminal jury trials through March 20.

Concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 virus prompted the closures. Harris County is canceling criminal jury trials for a week, starting March 13, and is taking a wait and see approach beyond that, Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez told Law360 Thursday. Dallas County announced Thursday it's canceling civil jury trials until April 13, including trials for the Justice of the Peace courts.

Criminal trials in Dallas will proceed but jury selection will be modified to avoid gathering large groups, County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

“In making the decision to suspend all civil juries for the next 30 days, I have factored in the risk-reward of continuing this important service," Jenkins said in a statement. "At this time, I have decided not to suspend all criminal jury trials as the inability to guarantee a speedy trial could result in cases being dismissed."

Jenkins called it a "rapidly developing situation" and said the county "will be monitoring the science and making adjustments continually."

The Texas Supreme Court issued guidance Thursday calling on courts to suspend proceedings or schedule them to avoid gatherings of large groups of people until at least April 1, including jury trials and large docket calls. It is encouraging courts to implement remote appearances by phone or video for all proceedings that may occur remotely.

Though civil jury trials will be on hold, the federal courthouse in Houston will remain open for other matters, including matters scheduled for hearing in bankruptcy court, the Southern District of Texas announced.

“The public is encouraged to continue using court services while following all applicable public health guidelines,” the statement reads. 

On Wednesday, Harris County's 24 civil district judges cited concerns about protecting due process and preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the Houston area for their decision to suspend jury trials.

“Each court will exercise its discretion on a case-by-case basis regarding the calling of bench trials,” the judges said in a joint statement. “As the situation continues to evolve we will provide further information."

Earlier Thursday, the Southern District of Texas had said its federal courthouses would remain open and that scheduled in-court appearances and their associated deadlines would remain in effect.

But the district's courts will make reasonable accommodations and reschedule matters as needed for attorneys, litigants, witnesses or jurors who have symptoms of COVID-19 or are hampered from appearing by coronavirus-related travel restrictions, according to the Southern District of Texas announcement. The court encouraged attorneys to appear by phone or through video for nonevidentiary hearings when possible.

"The situation remains fluid. The courts are committed to doing our work well, fairly and safely for all," the court said. "We are carefully monitoring the situation and will promptly post information about changes as they are needed."

Update: This story has been updated throughout with information about courts in Texas and with comments from Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

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

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