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all courts—held strong despite the challenges this virus posed. Governmental restrictions prohibiting in person meetings with no immediate cure in site caused our courts to adapt quickly to the new normal, and virtual court sessions were born. Harris County state district courts now have giant TV screens where juries once sat. There are microphones and cameras mounted on judges’ benches. Plexiglas shields court clerks, court reporters’ desks, and the witness stand. Tables and chairs inside the bar stand mostly empty. Prosecutors and defense attorneys appear by teleconference over internet connections. The Harris County state district courts use Zoom to conduct these virtual proceedings. Defendants who have the capability may also appear by Zoom. But there are safety precautions in place in each district court to allow for in-person appearances for defendants who do not have internet access or have some other compelling reason to attend live court sessions. In those cases, the number of people allowed in the courtroom at one time is limited to a very few to maintain the capacity regulations imposed by county authorities. Health screeners monitor courthouse entrances. Everyone, including court staff and the public, must pass the standard COVID-19 screening to gain entry. Once inside, everyone must wear the mandatory face mask.2 These safety measures have become our new normal. Our courts must provide a safe environment in order to continue to operate and fulfill our constitutional obligations.

The use of technology in courts to accommodate virtual proceedings is not without problems and concerns. Challenges to these unprecedented court proceedings are being raised on appeal. We are watching our appellate courts as they deal with these cases of first impression. The courts have and continue to adapt to the new changes brought on by the COVID-19 virus. Court administrators, medical personnel, lawyers, judges, public officials, and the public are coordinating efforts to maintain public safety and to ensure our responsibilities to communities and institutions are fulfilled. As we emerge from this latest crisis, courts will be forever changed. The convenience of this mixture of both public and virtual court proceedings likely will remain with us. This new way of employing technology to meet obligations in the midst of great storms has assured us that the right to court access, guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Texas Constitution, can be and will be protected. The Honorable Lori Chambers Gray is the presiding judge of the 262nd Criminal Court of Harris County.

Endnotes

1. TEX. CONST. art. I, § 13. 2. The federal district courts in Houston have similar requirements. See Special Order H-2021012 (S.D. Tex. Apr. 15, 2021), https://www.txs.uscourts.gov/sites/ txs/files/Special%20Order%20H-2021-12%20Twelfth%20Supplemental%20 Court%20Operations%20in%20Houston%20and%20Galveston%20During%20 COVID-19.pdf.

thehoustonlawyer.com

May/June 2021

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