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Williamson County’s Virtual Courts

The Williamson County Justice Center houses nine courts and two prosecutors’ offices. It is where most official public records are filed and kept, including death records, marriage licenses, and probate and property records. In short, it is always busy.

Prior to the pandemic, a typical day in the Williamson County Courthouse might mean as many as 1,000 people coming and going to attend court hearings, serve on juries, access public records, file legal documents, and more. Last March, when the order came to shut down businesses and public offices, the Williamson County Judiciary, the County Judge, and the County Health Director created an operations plan to keep the Courthouse doors open.

With the tremendous support of the Information and Technology Department, each of the four County Courts at Law and five District Courts began working virtually. While the courts labored under restrictions preventing in-person proceedings, except in limited circumstances, virtual platforms were developed to allow the courts, attorneys, and litigants to conduct business.

THE NEW NORMAL

Keeping cases moving, especially criminal and family cases, was a top priority in the early days of the transition to the virtual docket. As Spring turned into Summer, and the virus was not yet mitigated, Judges adopted additional procedures to expand the platforms to con- duct hearings, conferences with attorneys and parties, and even try cases efficiently.

Restrictions on convening in person meant traditional jury impaneling could not happen, because a large number of people could not gather. How- ever, 26th District Court Judge Donna King found a work-around for the large jury “cattle call” through technology.

Judge King impaneled a grand jury in June without convening a large number of potential jurors, putting into practice a novel concept for Williamson County—electronic qualification and exemption.

Judge King worked with the “superstars” of the County’s IT department and the District Clerk’s Office to create a web- based platform and questionnaire process through which potential jurors could complete the process and opt out of service from the comfort of their homes. This is the same process one goes through when arriving at the jury call room at the justice center, along with 300 new best friends.

Once the Judge reviewed the qualified jurors’ questionnaires online, she scheduled appointments for potential jurors to appear in groups of five for final stages of impaneling. With the help of Courthouse staff, the process was socially distanced and contact-free—jurors were in and out of the building in under 30 minutes, and the grand jury impaneled before lunchtime.

Participants in the process were given an opportunity to opt out of participation due to the pandemic, but Judge King says she was pleased at the level of participation; “Many jurors expressed they felt a duty to participate despite the virus and appreciated our careful construction of a safe alternative to the normal impaneling process.”

WHAT’S NEXT ?

The courts continue to con- duct business mostly virtually, but are developing a transition plan to move, gradually, into in-person proceedings under the advisement of Dr. Palazzo, the County’s Medical Director and in compliance with the directives of the Office of Court Administration and the Texas Supreme Court.

Judge King adds, “All nine judges are committed to keeping the business of the courts moving as efficiently as possible during this unprecedented time, but always putting the health and safety of employees, participant and the public first.”

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