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With Courtrooms Back, Some Lawyers Remain Partially Online

In San Antonio, COVID-19 slammed the brakes on in-person trials for 13 months, causing a backlog that at its height was about 50,000 cases. Some attorneys embraced remote practices while others shunned them.

courtroom gavel
(TNS) — Attorney Maribel Cruz split her time last week between in-person and electronic proceedings in Bexar County's presiding court, a convenient hybrid in a judiciary starting to emerge from pandemic restrictions.

As a mother of two children, she found the courts' embrace of technology allowed her to take care of both her needs at home and run her family law practice. It also works out better for the people she represents.

"I can go anywhere and do it," Cruz, 48, said of court proceedings during a break in Thursday's hearings — in person this time — at the Bexar County Courthouse. "Frankly, it is better for clients, too."

But Hector Garza, who has his own law practice and shares office space with Cruz, never really embraced Zoom videoconferencing in the abrupt switch forced by the pandemic two years ago.

"I have been foaming at the mouth for this day," Garza, 54, said Friday about the return to actual courtrooms, which started last week in Bexar County. "I can't wait to get back in person."

COVID-19 slammed the brakes on in-person trials for 13 months, causing a backlog that at its height was about 50,000 cases. In the second half of 2021, a raft of plea bargains and some limited and brief trial activity reduced that number to about 30,000.

At the end of the year, state District Judge Ron Rangel suspended jury service for the first two weeks of January because of an omicron variant-fueled surge in COVID-19 cases. It was one of his last orders as administrative judge for the district courts.

Then in late January, Rangel's successor, state District Judge Rosie Alvarado, suspended jury service until March 1, and extended the pause to March 11.

But the civil courts had experience with teleconferencing at the height of the pandemic and Alvarado implemented a plan in February encouraging them to hold remote and hybrid nonjury hearings. Participants who choose to appear in person were told to be prepared to introduce documents and evidence on Zoom. The proceedings "have been very smooth," she said.

"We encourage people to bring a laptop or iPad and an air card to log into Zoom" in courtrooms, Alvarado said, adding that each courtroom has its own media cart and devices to assist participants who don't have the technology.

The halls of the Bexar County Courthouse and the Cadena-Reeves Justice Center were buzzing with people called up for jury service last week — online as well as in person.

Potential jurors still are allowed to check in and screen for disqualifications remotely, and some criminal court judges also are picking jurors on Zoom the day before the panel convenes in person.

Bexar County uses a presiding court system for its civil courts. Each of the 14 district judges rotate monthly to assign cases on dockets of nonjury and pretrial matters to the other judges. The dockets routinely contain more than 100 cases, and the sorting begins each day at 8:30 a.m.

The large courtroom in the historic courthouse only had about seven people in the gallery Thursday — four of them attorneys. State District Judge Laura Salinas, presiding for March, monitored the room and other participants on Zoom, calling out the cases as usual. Several TV monitors were placed in the courtroom so that those in person could see those on screen.

"I was expecting more traffic, but it was very quiet," Salinas said, noting that it also was spring break, a vacation time at the justice center.

Alvarado said this hybrid test can last as long as the state's judiciary is under emergency orders set by the Texas Supreme Court, which allowed for relaxed rules in all courtrooms during the pandemic.

On the criminal side, the district courts have designated days on which only three to four courts at a time are qualifying and picking juries.

All of the courtrooms had been retrofitted during the pandemic with clear barriers in front of the judge, witness and court reporter stands. Some judges have removed them, some have not.

On Thursday, defendants in masks appeared before Judge Jennifer Peña in the 290th District Court. She kept the barriers on her bench.

Peña, who is up for re-election this year but drew no opponents, said there are pros and cons to using Zoom. She recognizes the convenience it presents to many — but not all.

"I like it, the attorneys like it, but it puts added stress on the court's support staff," she said.

Rangel concurred — virtual proceedings take much more time than those conducted in person.

"Virtual hearings aren't necessarily a panacea; they take longer," he said, pointing to a recent example of a jury selection involving 70 people.

"I had one who could not log on," Rangel said. "Everyone else on the panel had to wait 45 minutes so he could drive to the courthouse."

He also said human contact in the courts is still important, and "you lose a lot of that with virtual proceedings."

Attorneys who practice both criminal and civil law agree that remote proceedings benefit them and their clients, especially by cutting travel expenses, because they can attend several Zoom hearings or proceedings held in different locations from the same chair, desk and laptop.

But they also agree that Zoom has taken away some important nuances experienced by attorneys when they're physically present in a courtroom.

"This is a different way of practicing law," said Cruz. "The feel on Zoom is not anywhere near the same as we do in person. And family law is all about emotion."

The Texas Supreme Court's 47th emergency order for how courts operate during the pandemic expires April 1.

© 2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.