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Federal Courts

An Interview with The Hon. Andrew M. Edison The federal courts have had to rapidly adapt operations during the pandemic, providing short- and long-term solutions to ensure that the public and practicing attorneys had continuous access to the justice system. While courts were somewhat forced into using Zoom during the pandemic to ensure access to justice, Judge Edison found that it made oral arguments more effective and saved time and expense. He believes that this platform will likely stay around in some form or fashion in the future. He noted that he had one case in particular in which the parties hailed from all over the country, but because the court used Zoom for the status conference, none of the parties were required to travel. Judge Edison said that Zoom hearings often provided better presentation of oral argument, and that the use of technology made his docket more efficient. The court made extensive use of the breakout room feature, in particular, which allowed litigants to discuss issues at court conferences, facilitating resolution of matters on

Houston Municipal Courts

The Hon. J. Elaine Marshall Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all locations of the Houston Municipal Courts adjusted to our new normal. Our buildings never closed, and we continued to assist every citizen who came into the courts. We had multiple courts open to provide for social distancing and never had more than ten people in a courtroom. We suspended jury and bench trials and all in-person hearings. Because of our volume of cases, we did not see Zoom as a viable method for our trials or hearings. At the onset, attorneys and citizens were given the opportunity to come in and reset their cases, and we had additional courts open on Saturdays to accommodate the volume. Our Safe Harbor Court was established and started in November of 2020. This court was designed to assist defendants due to financial hardships, medical issues, or issues arising from COVID-19. It has three dedicated judges who the citizens come in to speak to, which gives the citizens consistency in making agreements with the court (since we have over sixty judges). The judges assist the defendants in satisfying judgments, and it gives them a safe harbor, free from the fear of arrest. The citizens must produce evidence of an inability to pay fine and fees, and the judges determine what options are 20 May/June 2021

the docket. Moreover, criminal proceedings could also be held via video, which helped streamline the docket. While there is indeed a lack of face-to-face contact in this “new normal,” Judge Edison noted that litigants have not seemed to lose any sense of collegiality. Judge Edison advised that for litigants to be effective advocates during Zoom hearings, they should treat it as an official proceeding and give the court the attention and level of professionalism expected in an in-person hearing. One of the most common problems are litigants not being aware of the technical aspects of their presentation. Additionally, Judge Edison indicated that it is crucial that advocates are able to be heard, have proper lighting, and give the court their full attention during the proceedings. The Honorable Andrew M. Edison is a United States Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Texas, Galveston Division. Judge Edison participated in the COVID-19 Roundtable Discussion that was published in the July/August 2020 issue of The Houston Lawyer, and graciously agreed to be interviewed about these same issues one year after the Roundtable.

best suited to assist the citizens. The additional greatness of this court is that once a month the judges will go into the community to discuss Safe Harbor options with citizens. Our courtrooms and courthouses were CDC-compliant, and we installed shields for all parties involved in trials, judges, and clerks. We also purchased clear masks for the jurors to use once we resumed trials. We have held several jury trials since re-opening fully on April 1, 2021. Our courtroom dockets were reduced in number upon reopening, especially at our Lubbock courthouse where we had already lost the entire basement, which housed five courtrooms and offices, due to Hurricane Harvey. We have managed to continue to operate despite all the obstacles that COVID-19 has thrown at us and continue to meet all constitutional needs of the citizens of Houston. Another challenge the courts faced this year was Winter Storm Uri. We kept our court open at the Joint Processing Center during this extreme weather event. We had two judges, one manager and two court clerk supervisors who worked around the clock 24/7 to ensure that the jail functions were met and warrant verification was fully operational. These five individuals were housed at the Hilton Americas, and were safely commuted back and forth to the Joint Processing Center to address all jail issues. The Hon. J. Elaine Marshall is the Director and Presiding Judge of the City of Houston Municipal Courts Department.