AUSTIN, Texas — It's another sign of life getting back to normal.
Travis County is getting ready for in-person jury trials to start in July for both civil and criminal cases after COVID-19 shut everything down last year.
But later this week, Travis County's civil courts' system is partnering with the University of Texas Law School to launch a series of educational videos to hopefully help unclog a backlog of cases.
On traviscountytx.gov, 250th Civil District Judge Karin Crump is seen explaining how a remote jury works.
"Before COVID, the State of Texas was trying over 10,000 jury trials a year. In 2020, there were only 222 jury trials. Our jury trial system essentially came to a screeching halt," Crump said.
That screeching halt didn't sit well with her. Crump says she has been trying to jump-start the jury trial system.
"We needed to keep cases moving and to ensure that we didn't have a big backlog at the end of this pandemic," said Crump.
To get an idea of where Travis County stands as far as a backlog of cases, we went to David Slayton, the Administrative Director at the Office of Court Administration.
According to the data provided by Slayton, there was an 8% decrease in active pending criminal cases in Travis County from May 2020 to March 2021.
But there was an 11.4% increase in active pending civil cases and a 15.6% increase in active pending family cases in Travis County in the same frame time.
Below are the number of cases:
- There were 6294 active pending criminal cases in the Travis District Courts on March 1, 2020, and there are 5,813 at the end of May 2021.
- There were 21,883 active pending civil cases in the Travis District Courts on March 1, 2020, and there are 24,380 at the end of May 2021.
- There were 10,697 active pending family cases in the Travis District Courts on March 1, 2020, and there are 12,367 at the end of May 2021.
Such data only fueled Crump to begin working with lawyers and others for months to perfect the online jury system.
She also created a series of educational videos called, Remote Jury Trial 101.
"It provides some information about what to expect at docket call, what to expect at the pretrial hearing, how a jury shuffle works in a remote proceeding, the local rules that apply to all of our remote jury trials, how breakout rooms work on Zoom and a remote jury trial," said Crump.
Crump said the video also covers the expected decorum of lawyers, litigants and jurors in a remote jury trial, how to prepare your witness for a remote trial or hearing how to offer evidence remotely and how to show exhibits to the court outside the presence of the jury.
"Before exhibits are admitted into court, the court has to review those documents. So the video shows how to offer exhibits, how to have a witness review and identify and authenticate a document before the jury sees it, how to show videos, how to screen share, how to do everything that you need in the presentation of a jury trial," Crump explained.
Sherrie Wirth is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law and part of the Trial Advocacy Program. Wirth has also been guiding those in the legal community with the remote jury process and helped with these how-to videos.
"There are things that cannot wait. Criminal cases cannot wait. Child Protective Services cases cannot wait. There are things that can go on hold, but every person is due their time in court in a timely manner. So there are a lot of people that have financial issues that can't wait. So while the reaction was to freeze at the very beginning and say, oh, this is all going to be over with soon, which soon became a year and a half, I think we're now realizing that we're still not out of this pandemic and we still need to keep the jury system and moving forward," Wirth said.
In fact, Wirth said Travis County's remote jury model has "pioneered a fantastic virtual jury program" and is cutting edge compared to the rest of the country.
"I cannot tell you how innovative they've been and creative and patient with the system and really worked through this. And the office of Court Administration for the state has been phenomenal in helping pull everything together for all the technology together, for everyone to really springboard into this virtual world," she said.
But it's a virtual world not conducive for all circumstances. Crump said medical malpractices cases involving confidential information and longer cases, with hundreds of pieces of evidence, are good examples where in-person juries are still needed.
Still, the pros far outweigh the cons.
Crump said one of the surprise unintended consequences of the remote jury system was an increase in jury participation. Another is the increase in diversity in the jury pools.
"We've had an almost 100% show-up rate for our for the members of the community who have been summoned. And that is just truly phenomenal. We know that when we've provided people the ability to serve from home and removed the difficulty of transportation and parking and logistics for child care, then everyone appears for jury service. And that means, you know, our citizens really want to participate. That means that our jury panels look more like our community," Crump said.
The first in-person civil jury trial is expected to start July 12.
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