Face mask requirements pose a new challenge as courts reopen

Courthouses around the country are slowly reopening, with a panoply of health and social distancing guidelines. One of the most basic rules is that everyone in the courthouse must wear a face mask — a wholly sensible approach from a public health perspective. But mandatory face coverings also pose interesting new challenges for lawyers, judges, and juries, because of our reliance on facial expressions to assess emotion and credibility.

Courts are awakening to the problem, and trying to develop creative ways to permit certain participants to uncover their faces while protecting public health. One possible solution is to conduct voir dire by videoconference.  Another is to cover witness and jury boxes with clear plexiglass, an admittedly second-best solution. As one Texas judge noted,

in Harris County, the courts are already installing plexiglass to protect the clerks, court reporters and bailiffs, who sit in high-traffic areas of courtrooms.

“I joke our courtrooms are going to look like a hockey rink,” he said. “We’re not putting plexiglass up around the jury box, because we haven’t figured out how we are going to conduct the jury trials. This is an issue that’s causing a lot of concern, because people sitting in the jury box are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Whatever the solution, the courtrooms will certainly feel different for a while.

Texas holds first Zoom jury trial

Yesterday, Texas held the first jury trial to be conducted exclusively through Zoom videoconferencing. The one-day summary jury trial was also livestreamed on YouTube.

This represents a major development, given that every other jurisdiction has simply postponed jury trials until courthouses reopen.  And judges are increasingly opening to the idea of remote trials in some form. On the other hand, some judges remain steadfastly opposed to trials outside the physical courtroom, and with courthouses beginning to reopen in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen how common videoconference trials will become.

Texas court system suffers ransomware attack

Last week, the Texas appeals courts and judicial agencies suffered a ransomware attack that disabled their IT network for several days. The situation was caught quickly and state court administrators created a temporary website. Officials have stressed that no personal information was stolen, and that the attack had no effect on the courts’ use of online hearings in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Georgia’s state courts experienced a similar ransomware attack last July.

Although no harm seems to have come out of this latest incident, it does underscore the vulnerability of technological networks and the potential effect on the administration of justice.

Texas court orders new judicial election after ballot error

A Texas state judge has ordered a new election for the Seventh Court of Appeals, after Republican primary candidates were left off the ballot in two counties last month. The successful challenge was brought by incumbent Larry Doss, who lost the primary.

Amarillo attorney Steven Denny, who was originally the winner based on the March 3 results, said he was disappointed with the results but understood the court’s reasoning. Denny also said he is concerned about how the rescheduled date could disenfranchise voters who cast ballots in the original elections.

“Although 1,200 voters in those two counties did not get a vote on this particular race, it is entirely likely with the dismal turnout in runoff elections compounded with the COVID-19 scare that we could have fewer than 10,000 voters in the new election, which would disenfranchise the other 80,000 that voted in the original election,” Denny said.

With Wisconsin proceeding with its state primary today after an unsuccessful legal challenge to postpone in light of the COVID-19 crisis, it will be interesting to see how states and localities thread the needle of public health and election participation.

On terrible judicial optics

Over the weekend, Texas state judge Sarah Eckhardt was forced to apologize after a reporter caught her publicly mocking the disability of the state’s governor, Greg Abbott. Eckhardt made her comment while participating on a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. The Federalist reports:

At a panel on leftist activism in cities, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was railing against the Texas legislature, complaining about how the state is constantly thwarting municipal policy. The Republicans running state government, she said, just want to stop whatever good things the cities are doing—whether it’s plastic bag bans, fracking bans, even local tree ordinances!

Then she said, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughed.

As all Texans know, Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down at age 26 when a tree fell on him while he was jogging on a windy day in Houston in 1984. He has used a wheelchair ever since.

Eckhardt’s comment was incredibly crude, even by our low modern standards, and she was right to apologize. But what was she doing at the Tribune Festival in the first place? It is an environment steeped in rough-and-tumble politics: this year’s speakers included Nancy Pelosi, Ted Cruz, Susan Rice, Julian Castro, and Anthony Scaramucci, among others. The panel on which Judge Eckhardt participated was entitled “Civic Enragement” and its description read: “How progressive politics are turning citizens into warriors and cities into battlegrounds.” Her co-panelists were all politicians; the moderator, a columnist for Vox.

This is no place for a judge to be. Of course, judges have their own political leanings, and in Texas they wear their party affiliations on their sleeves. But what message does it send to the public when a judge so plainly aligns herself with partisan politics and partisan ideology? How could anyone who openly disagrees with her politics ever hope to get a fair hearing in her courtroom? Even leaving aside her sophomoric joke about the governor, Judge Eckhardt has permanently stained any chance to build a reputation as an impartial jurist.

Judges have to make sacrifices when they don the robe, including avoiding activities that they might otherwise enjoy. This is not always fair, but it is necessary, as this sorry episode makes clear.

Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook

William “Bill” McLeod, a well-respected Houston-area trial judge, was contemplating running for the Texas Supreme Court in the 2020 general election. Earlier this month, he stated as much on his Facebook page, unaware that such a declaration triggered an automatic resignation from his current position under Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution.

Harris and his supporters appealed the automatic removal, but this week Harris County commissioners voted 4-1 to uphold the resignation. It appears to have been a difficult decision, given that McLeod was a popular and experienced judge who won a sizable majority in the last election.

Still, there were important countervailing considerations: Continue reading “Texas judge accidentally resigns via Facebook”

Two state supreme courts converge in Texarkana

State courts do an admirable job of bringing their work into the community, and one of the more common approaches is to hold oral arguments in high schools. Setting up an argument in a school auditorium is manageable logistically, and allows students to see how the courts operate close-up.

So I particularly liked this story about the supreme courts of Arkansas and Texas traveling to Texarkana at the same time to hold hearings. The Arkansas justices held their proceedings at Arkansas High School, and the Texas justices at Texas High School, before coming together for a question-and-answer session at the city’s convention center. It shows the courts to be both thoughtful and savvy in their community outreach.