‘It means that justice is delayed’: Courts face major backlogs as pandemic continues

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — COVID-19 restrictions are causing backups in courts across Texas, and it could take a while before the backlogs are cleared.

In March of last year, courts across Texas moved operations online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the last year we have seen over 1.1 million remote hearings,” said David Slayton, administrative director with Texas Office of Court Administration.

But not every case can be heard virtually.

In 2019, Texas Courts averaged 186 jury trials every week. From March 13 to January 1, there have been 222 in-person and remote jury trials.

“A little over a week’s work in over a year, so that has been a big issue,” Slayton said.

The changes haven’t come without problems, especially for criminal jury trials.

“It means that justice is delayed for people who are accused and victims.”

Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza

“Probably the biggest issue for us has been having criminal jury trials where jail is a punishment of those,” Slayton said. “Because people have a right to confront their witnesses, and that is generally in person, so doing that remotely has been a problem. We have given criminal defendants and prosecutors the option of doing that. The Supreme Court permits that, except it requires the consent of the prosecutor and the defendant and so far there has not been a case where that has been done.”

Slayton says in all other cases, there have been jury trials and they have worked out well. For criminal jury trials, that means victims and defendants will have to continue to wait for their day in court.

“It means that justice is delayed for people who are accused and victims,” said Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza.

He knows his staff will be busy in the coming months trying to clear an ever-growing backlog of cases.

“There are some cases that will not be able to move until we can have jury trials again and I know we are working hard to ensure that happens,” Garza said.

With the vaccine rollout there is hope things can return to normal soon, but when that happens is still unknown.

“Obviously when we feel like most people have had access to that it allows us to sort of return to more in-person operations,” Garza said.

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