District Judge Steve Ellis suggested scenarios for court proceedings next month — including possibly using the Brownwood Coliseum for jury selection — as the court prepares for the resumption of jury trials.
Ellis was one of several people who spoke on a Zoom videoconferencing session Wednesday, hosted by Brown County Judge Paul Lilly, for COVID updates.
Court proceedings are currently conducting through Zoom, “not in person with certain rare exceptions,” Ellis said.
He said the Zoom hearings will continue through the end of May, with no in-person hearings in the district court with the exception of certain essential cases.
“The essential case from the district court perspective right now, that will require in-person participation, will be grand juries,” Ellis said.
Normally a grand jury meets monthly in a room in the district attorney’s office. Those were postponed for the months of March and April, Ellis said.
“We’re going to have to meet with them this month,” Ellis said, noting that a grand jury will meet May 28.
“That’ll be the first time that we have people brought to the courthouse,” Ellis said. “We’ll need to have masks available for these people. They’ll be meeting in the district courtroom. We have to do the social distancing. We’ll have to have the hand sanitizers.”
Ellis said he needs to meet with other officials later about “not just the grand jury situation, but the jury situation as a whole, beginning in June.”
Jury trials are scheduled beginning June 8 and possibly June 22, Ellis said.
“We don’t have the facilities in this courthouse to do all that we need to do,” Ellis said. “We’ve got cases that are backed up.”
Ellis described a possible scenario in which the county would enter into an agreement with the city, and use the Brownwood Coliseum — at least for the jury selection process.
“The only place that is viable right now that I can come up with is going to be the coliseum,” Ellis said. “I know we would need to have the coliseum floor for jury selection. It’s possible we could move the trial to the courthouse if we have other places like the county courtroom for the jury to utilize for deliberations.
“We cannot pack people in a jury box. We cannot pack people in a jury room for deliberation. We’re going to have to maintain all the social distancing and it’s going to be a challenge.”
Ellis acknowledged that conducting court during COVID restrictions will be “a real logistical nightmare. It may not be possible. There may be too many hurdles for us to overcome. The public has to be safe.
“To go forward in June we’re going to have a written ongoing operating plan on how we’re going to hold court. In-person proceedings are more manageable if they’re nonjury matters. It’ll be hybrid deal. We’re going to still be going forward with a lot of Zoom hearings, and then there will be some nonjury proceedings we can do fairly easily in person. But then jury trials are really problematic.”