Expecting an even bigger backlog than before COVID-19, McLean’s staff is drafting processes for online court settings. However, she did say that this time has given her clerks the opportunity to catch up on projects and explore future innovative ideas for court.
Judge Edna Staudt of Precinct 2 works in Cedar Park and had participated in the Continuity of Government training, so she was well-prepared for continuing services when her office had to vacate the facility.
With assistance from Wilco’s IT Department, Staudt and her staff were working successfully by remote within a week. Her staff continues to receipt filings of lawsuits, criminal complaints, payment of fines and to process mail.
They’re answering phones to provide information and meet statutory requirements for deposits. The case manager continues monitoring orders for juveniles on probation.
However, cases cannot proceed to trial until the state reinstates live proceedings and service of citation (legal notice to the other party that your case is filed and you notified the court about this).
Unless classified as “essential” by the state, live proceedings have been discontinued by law. Live courtroom hearings and service of citation require assistance from the Constable’s office for security and serving notices.
In the JP Precinct 4 office in Taylor, Judge Stacy Hackenberg was unable to offer virtual court and began setting hearings for June, when she hopes they’ll resume in-person court.
She explained that the remote system can work well if every party has broadband access and the proficiency to conduct business remotely. For customers lacking that access and/or are uncomfortable with technology, virtual court doesn’t work as well.
Much of Precinct 4 is rural with limited broadband access, and she suggests that broadband should be available to every resident in the county to offer a more open, accessible and fair judicial system for everyone involved.
For the future, Hackenberg foresees an increased emphasis on offering customers self-service options that go beyond online payments, such as offering opportunities in small claims for negotiations between the parties to reduce the need for the court’s involvement.
To be safe, Wilco’s JPs also were forced to stop conducting in-person inquests in the case of a death, and instead began taking information over the phone from officers on the scene to determine whether an autopsy was warranted.
Virtual inquests have proven one of Staudt’s biggest laments. At these inquests, she would always hug the bereaved family members of the deceased and offer prayers. Instead, she began mailing them cards with encouraging and spiritual messages.
Our justices and their staff—just like the rest of us—have been forced to adapt to new ways of doing business. I marvel at their innovative methods and willingness to serve in difficult times and unprecedented circumstances.