How Has COVID-19 Impacted Jury Trials in Texas?

Empty jury seats in courtroom due to COVID-19.

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Courts are still struggling to streamline processes and adapt to a new normal – especially when it comes to jury trials.

With the pandemic making in-person proceedings nearly impossible, the state’s court system has been beleaguered by back-and-forth battles with the coronavirus, at times implementing complete closures in the face of rising infection rates and at others opting for very limited proceedings.

While courts and counsel have done what they can to move cases along via virtual proceedings, the big picture remains clear: the vast majority of jury trials in Texas have been delayed over the past year, and a continuance of this trend will undoubtedly have a major impact on parties in both civil and criminal proceedings.

COVID & the Courts: How Fewer Trials Are Impacting Civil Cases

Below, we discuss some of the most significant pandemic-induced issues related to civil jury trials.

1. Big Backlogs

As is the case with many other areas of our lives, COVID-19 has changed the way courts process cases and in-person proceedings. This will likely continue for years to come. This is due in large part to the sheer size of the backlog in Texas Courts (both State and Federal).

According to the state Office of Court Administration (OCA):

  • Texas Courts held an average of 186 jury trials (civil and criminal) per week in 2019.
  • Between March and June 2020, zero jury trials were held in Texas.
  • Between June and October 2020, Texas courts held just 44 jury trials (civil and criminal).

Although there have some been in-person proceedings for certain matters since early summer 2020, the vast majority of jury trials and in-person proceedings have been delayed since the Texas Supreme Court suspended all jury trials on March 19, 2021, and adopted policies for limited proceedings in late May.

Even as a mass rollout of COVID vaccines provides hope for a return to some normalcy, the backlog of cases will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future, and will likely take the State years to process.

2. Criminal Cases Will Be Given Priority Over Civil Trials

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides individuals charged with crimes by the government the right to due process and a “speedy and public trial.”

If and when courts resume in-person jury trials on a larger scale, concerns over the speedy trial clause means criminal cases are likely to be given priority over civil cases.

This is especially true in jurisdictions like federal courts, where Judges hear both criminal and civil cases – including civil litigation involving intellectual property, contract disputes, and alleged violations of federal health care laws.

3. Out-of-Court Negotiations

The threat of litigation has always been a powerful bargaining tool in commercial disputes.

With experts suggesting that it could be years before courts hear civil trials at pre-pandemic rates, however, there could be a dramatic impact on how disputing parties in civil litigation negotiate meaningful resolutions. For example:

  • A stagnant docket could prompt parties to explore alternative methods of dispute resolution to sidestep the backlog while still reaching satisfactory outcomes. This includes mediation, arbitration, and out-of-court settlement negotiations – all of which can be conducted remotely far more feasibly and promptly than a trial in the post-pandemic world.
  • On the other hand, fewer civil trials and a big backlog to clear may hinder the ability of some parties to negotiate effectively. Plaintiffs with claims against more powerful defendants, for instance, may not have the resources or time to withstand an indefinite legal limbo like their counterparts, potentially putting them at a disadvantage and making them more likely to accept settlements or resolutions they would not have accepted had the threat of a trial been more imminent.

4. A Premium on Proactive Protections

Because disputes and conflict are an inevitable part of business, many individuals, employers, and entities have pivoted to a more proactive approach to protect themselves. This can include:

  • Implementing and refining regulatory compliance policies.
  • Drafting soundly structured corporate bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, and other governing documents for new businesses and start-ups.
  • Creating partnership and shareholder agreements, employment agreements, and other contracts and restrictive covenants to protect intellectual property and trade secrets.

By placing a premium on creating clear and enforceable agreements at the outset of contractual relationships, individuals and entities can reduce the potential for conflict and their exposure to liability. Should disputes or breaches occur, solid agreements can also provide more options for enforcement – including temporary hearings and other court processes that can be conducted more effectively remotely than a full-fledged jury trial.

5. Government Concessions

In claims brought by the government, time is rarely a friend for regulators.

Because memories fade and witnesses are lost over time, and because the government has a vested interest in clearing out incredible backlogs in the courts, there may be more opportunities for those facing allegations levied by the government to reach reasonable resolutions.

While concessions from the government are most notable in criminal matters where prosecutors may offer more lenient plea agreements in order to close out cases, it could also become a factor in civil proceedings, such as those involving health care fraud, Medicare and Medicaid fraud, and other regulatory violations, and may aid in helping those under investigation avoid matters from turning into formal cases in the first place.

Your Counsel in a New-Normal Business Environment

Hendershot Cowart P.C. counsels clients across Texas and beyond who have faced disruptions, disputes, and new concerns amid the pandemic. Even as the pandemic continues to impact civil jury trials in Texas and other jurisdictions, we have the insight and resources to help clients adapt and find meaningful solutions that align with their goals.

If you wish to speak with an attorney, call or contact us online. We serve clients in a range of civil matters – from business law and litigation to health and medical law, OSHA, construction, oil and gas, probate, and more.

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