Covid has served to disrupt the Harris County Criminal Courts. In addition to face mask requirements, the system itself has changed considerably in an effort to provide a safe and suitable court and work environment. For the last four months, many court settings have been rolled to new dates, sometimes without notice. The original reason for this tactic was to delay until safety could be assured, and to reemploy regular dockets when the threat was controlled. Most of us believed that we would be in the quagmire for no more than three months.
The quick opening of the State of Texas has created a new surge in cases and has put a substantial crimp in everybody’s plans. Now it cannot be predicted when it will be safe to return. And cases are piling up. Judges are seeing their case load nearly double during this pandemic and some are beginning to panic.
The lynchpin that keeps the criminal justice system humming along are plea agreements. Neither the criminal defendant, his criminal defense lawyer, or the prosecutor has the ability or impetus to work a case out when nobody ever has to go to court. Another impediment to a plea agreement is the lack of criminal juries. Actually, the problem is the lack of a threat of a criminal jury. If an Assistant District Attorney has no reason to fear an obligation to present her case to a criminal jury, she is way less likely to actually take a serious interest in her case. My experience is been an ADA is not likely to dismiss or offer something reasonable until they absolutely have to.
Some Assistant District Attorneys just don’t help very much. None of them come to court anymore. Most sit at home in front of their computers and make court appearances, when necessary, by Zoom conference. Some return emails and some don’t, but it is difficult to make an argument for dismissal to a prosecutor while she’s playing with her cat. In their position, it’s so much easier for them to punt. Frankly, there’s lots of punting on third down going on in Harris County.
Harris County Criminal Defense Attorneys don’t escape criticism here. They also have no impetus to complete a case. Their clients, after all, are presumed innocent while the case is floating through the system. Most criminal lawyers are sitting at home or in their office, making necessary appearances by Zoom as well. As noted, most of the time appearances aren’t necessary since cases are being rolled without end.
I have been going to court nearly every day. I’ve used Zoom, but it just doesn’t feel right. I think criminal defense is too personal a vocation to do it by video. However, my wife thinks I’m just a leopard that can’t change its spots. In any case, Judges are showing up, and some other lawyers show up, some in masks and some in hazmat suits. Most of the court personnel are protected behind plexiglass shields. It all looks pretty dangerous.
Frankly, I don’t know how the courts are going to get back to normal. Social distancing isn’t possible in there. Rules have been put into place to limit the number of people riding the elevator to four, but I watch that rule ignored every day. If we were to go back to regular court dockets, we would have lines for blocks by allowing only four riders per elevator. It’s just not workable. The Harris County criminal Courts are typically as congested as New York subways, and we all know how that turned out. However, something has to give or the court system will collapse under its own weight.