Judge explains steps for keeping jurors safe in pandemic

Staff Writer
Brownwood Bulletin
Steve Ellis

When Steve Ellis was first elected judge of the 35th Judicial District in 1996, he couldn’t have imagined the coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted virtually all of life, including the courts, during his final months in office.

Ellis did not seek another term and retires at the end of the year.

“It’s been such a crazy upside down world,” Ellis said in an interview in his chambers. “I don’t think anybody saw this coming. We’re still not out of the woods yet.

“Nobody knows what tomorrow holds. It’s such a balance between public safety and economic well being, and the whole world’s been dealing with it. Obviously the concerns are very serious and we’ve got to treat them accordingly.”

Since the pandemic began, non-jury court matters have proceeded via Zoom videoconference. Jury trials have not taken place.

That will change later this summer, as jury trials are scheduled to resume in August. Court personnel will be following CDC guidelines, Ellis said. The courts are taking steps to keep people who answer a summons for jury selection and who end up serving on a jury as safe as possible, he said.

Jury selection will take place at Howard Payne University’s Mims Auditorium, where a large number of prospective jurors can be seated in accordance with social distancing requirements.

After a jury is seated, the trial will take place in the district courtroom. Jurors will wear face masks and will be scattered throughout the courtroom. Shields have been installed at many of the stations in the courtroom where court personnel will be seated.

In Mims Auditorium and the courtroom, cleaning crews will clean and sanitize frequently, Ellis said. Hand sanitizers will be available.

Rather than deliberating in the usual jury room, jurors will spread out in the adjacent court-at-law courtroom for deliberations.

Members of the public will not be allowed into the courtroom during a jury trial. Anyone wanting to view the trial can go to the county courtroom and watch the trial live on a video screen, Ellis said.

Jury trials are scheduled for Aug. 10, Aug. 24, Sept. 10, Sept. 21, Oct. 5, Oct. 19, Nov. 2 and Dec. 7.

Before prospective jurors even show up for jury selection, they will have been given a COVID pre-screening questionnaire, and they will be screened before being allowed to enter Mims Auditorium or the courthouse. Court personnel will also be screened and will observe CDC guidelines including masks and social distancing.

On the pre-screening questionnaire, a paragraph states:

“Individuals who are over age 65 and individuals with serious underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and those whose immune systems are compromised, such as by chemotherapy for cancer or other conditions requiring such therapy, are considered to be vulnerable populations and may request to postpone or be excused from jury service at this time.”

Ellis said, “People that would be at higher risk — indicate that. We’re going to let them out.“Face coverings are going to be required while they’re at the courthouse or at Mims. They’ll be encouraged to bring a cloth mask with them, but if they don’t, they’ll be furnished with one.

“All the protocols are going to be put in place. I want them to be aware that we’re doing everything we can do to follow the CDC guidelines and we don’t want to put anyone at risk.”

Ellis said the pandemic has “caused us to think out of the box and do things differently. It’s all been a day-to-day thing. We started out thinking this will just be a temporary, but everybody has had to grapple with it. It’s been a challenge for everyone. The courts are just part of it.

“We have to balance the public safety mechanism with the rights and the privileges of the people involved. If everything grinds to a halt, if there is no jury trial that can be done, the right to a jury trial is pretty empty.”

Ellis said he hopes the public will “take the sense that they’ve put a lot of thought into this, they’re going to protect us. If for some reason they have concerns, we have a way for them to express it.

“We want them to be excused in that event and if they’re sick, we want them to get well and not share it with anybody else. And then we want to be able to get through with a jury trial in a fair way for all concerned, without prejudicing the rights of the defendant, to a fair trial by a jury of the citizens of the county in which he lives, who don’t have a stake in the fight, and then move on.”