Between March 24-May 14, the county’s nine judges held over 600 virtual hearings and over 300 attorney conferences to help move cases forward, 425th District Court Judge Betsy Lambeth said. She added that associated judges have magistrate 633 defendants remotely and authorized over 30 search warrants in that same time.
Lambeth said she herself has done adoptions, divorce custody and child welfare cases—all virtually.
“I want to stress that the courts have been open, and everybody has access to the courts. We've never shut the courthouse doors, and we will not. It just looks a little bit different,” Lambeth said.
The courts are also conscientious of the jail population, as the jail is a high-risk area for the spread of coronavirus. Lambeth said the judges have placed 41 defendants on probation and 74 defendants on pretrial supervision, which reduces the jail population. She added that the only people released were nonviolent individuals jailed for low-level offenses.
Lambeth said virtual courtrooms were already in the works in Williamson County prior to the stay-at-home order, but the pandemic forced it to come to fruition faster than planned. Even so, the court started preparing for the possibility of virtual court in late February, Lambeth said.
She added that it took a moment for lawyers to adapt to virtual court proceedings, but when they realized the physical courtrooms would be closed for some time, they jumped on board.
“The county dedicated ... IT people [to us] to help get our systems up and running,” Lambeth said. “We were ready to go to a virtual courtroom the minute the Office of Court Administration gave us the OK.”
The Office of Court Administration is a state agency that operates under the direction and supervision of the Supreme Court of Texas and the Chief Justice, according to the Texas Courts website. It provides resources and information for the efficient administration of the state judicial branch, the website said.
While Williamson County plans to reopen many of its buildings June 1, the Texas Supreme Court has not authorized the resumption of in-person hearings other than essential hearings that cannot be conducted remotely. Williamson County courts are in the process of developing an opening plan, which must first be approved by the Texas Supreme Court and the OCA, county officials said. Jury trials will also continue to be on hold until further guidance from OCA is received, they said.
In addition, all Williamson County Justices of the Peace will not hold in-person court proceedings until after June 15 unless the case is considered an "imminent threat,” officials said.
Lambeth and Judge John McMaster, County Court at Law Four, both said there have been some benefits to holding virtual hearings, including improved access to defendants who may be in mental health facilities or in jail and require transportation to appear in person. With virtual hearings, the facilities or jails can set up a computer for the individual to participate.
However, both also acknowledged there are some nuances of a courtroom that can only be effective in a physical courtroom, such as cross-examination or interrogation of a witness, where McMaster said he does not see a positive in holding only virtual proceedings.
“Cross-examination is an art form,” McMaster said. “When you’re cross examining somebody looking into a flat screen, you don’t get those subtle cues that you get [when] you’re cross-examining somebody [in person].”
Nonetheless, McMaster said holding virtual court saves him a lot of time, and his and Lambeth’s dockets remain full, they said.
“We're open and ready for business,” Lambeth said. “We love doing what we're doing; we're just doing it in a different way.”