March 15, 2020
Dear Counselors and Litigants,
“Keep the Courts open.”
--Direction from then Chief Justice Charles T. Wells, soon after 11 Sep 01
In the event of a pandemic, it is essential that the Judicial Branch fulfill its mission to provide an independent, accessible, responsive forum for the just resolution of disputes, to preserve the rule of law and to protect all rights and liberties guaranteed by the United States and Texas constitutions.
In response to the State of Disaster declared by the Governor, the growing concerns about COVID-19 and to protect the due process rights and public health of all residents, the 425th District Court makes the following changes to court procedures. Please read through this letter carefully in its entirety.There are many details contained within.
- In the best interest of the community and in the interest of public health please do not attempt to visit the Williamson County Courthouse in person for any matter set in the 425th Court without direct communication with the court.
- Most, if not all court appearances between March 16 and April 17, 2020, will be held via CourtCall.
- Starting immediately and continuing until April 17, 2020, the 425th District Court will be operating through a virtual courtroom except for emergencies.Emergencies will handled on a case-by-case basis by the procedure noted below.
- Court will only be available for in-person hearings on emergency matters.If lawyers or litigants believe their matter is an emergency please contact Marlys Tidrick at [email protected] and wait for a response.Please do not attempt to visit the Williamson County Courthouse in person for any matter without direct communication with the court.
- Cases currently set in the 425th between March 16 and April 17, 2020:The court recommends all non-emergency hearings be rescheduled.Lawyers and litigants shall exercise their best judgment as to whether the hearing is an emergency.
- The scheduled hearing will occur in a virtual courtroom format via CourtCall; or
- By agreement with opposing counsel the hearing may be cancelled.
- CPS cases:Beginning after docket on March 17, 2020, for CPS cases, all statutory review hearings will be postponed until the court finds it is reasonably possible to proceed, taking into account the circumstances.The Court or the County Attorneys office will notify parties on those cases needing to be re-set once normal operations resume for in-person hearings.The court will continue to hold Show Cause and Chapter 262 hearings through CourtCall.
- The 425th District Court will continue to comply with the open courts provisions of the Constitution by broadcasting the CourtCall hearings in the courtroom.
Taking into consideration the urgent concerns of public health, being considerate of the litigants with cases in the 425th Court and being aware of the need to continue court in the midst of this emergency, the 425th Court will give litigants two options for hearings scheduled or to be scheduled in the 425th District Court.For litigants with hearings scheduled in the 425th District Court from March 16 through April 17, 2020 there are two options:
You will be required to register with CourtCall at https://courtcall.com Please see the attached Frequently Asked Questions.
CourtCall is a fee based service that allows licensed attorneys and self-represented litigants to participate telephonically from any location in the world.It is a browser-based video application that requires no special equipment or software downloads.While there will be a fee for your participation, the fee is less than the time-cost of a drive to the courthouse.Instructions are found at https://CourtCall.com
If you register for your hearing at CourtCall and subsequently reach an agreement before the virtual docket call, you may cancel your CourtCall appearance and you will be eligible for a refund.
If CourtCall is used, there are several ways the hearing can be conducted.Counsel may have their client and witnesses physically present in their office.Or, Counsel can call in from one location, the client can call in from another location and a witness could call in from a different location.All participants must have a computer with a webcam.Witness testimony will be taken with all participants being able to view the video feed.Mandi Alvarez, the 425th Court Reporter, will be recording the proceedings by appearance through CourtCall.Attorneys will be able to admit documents by uploading the documents. Counsel must pre-mark exhibits.Once the exhibit is uploaded, each participant will be able to view the exhibit.It is quite seamless.The Court will be able to sign documents via an e-signature.Ms. Alvarez will keep and file copies of exhibits per her normal procedure.Please be patient.The first several times there will be some clumsy moments.
The Court will do a trial run of this CourtCall procedure on Monday. Based upon that trial run there may be more updates. Those updates will be sent to the bar and posted in the court webpage.
To abide by the open courts provision of the US Constitution the video will be displayed in the courtroom as long as the courthouse remains open.If the courthouse closes, there will be other accommodations made to comply with the Constitution.
By Agreement, Cancellation
It is important to remember that the hearing may be cancelled only by agreement of the parties.The court always has the ability to readjust the allocation of the CourtCall fee.If the hearing is cancelled by agreement, counsel will not be able to request a rescheduled date until after April 17, 2020.We have no way of knowing how this emergency situation will be affecting court in the near future.
Agreed Matters Or Matters on Submission
In the meantime, and to ensure the civil justice system functions as efficiently as possible under the circumstances, if lawyers and litigant believe they have an agreed matter or non-evidentiary matter that does not require a record, they may submit the motion and a proposed order for consideration directly to the court by email to Ms. Tidrick. Ms. Tidrick will then communicate to all parties regarding whether the judge will consider this matter by submission or by scheduling a CourtCall appearance.
Agreed Divorce Prove Up Hearings
Lawyers and litigants may finalize their divorces by submission as follows.The parties may prepare an agreed, signed (by all parties and attorneys, if any) and notarized Statement of Evidence. The statement of evidence form is being prepared and will be on the court website.The statement of evidence and the final decree of divorce will be submitted electronically and then forwarded to the court for signature.Once the final decree is signed Ms. Tidrick will notify the parties the final decree has been signed.
Default Divorce Hearings
Default divorce hearings are not emergency matters.Because of the potential for notice and record issues the court will not consider default divorces until further notice. As this emergency situation develops we may make changes to these procedures.
Please understand that the above guidelines take into consideration the recommendations of the Texas Supreme Court, the Office of Court Administration, Center for Disease Control, the Texas Department of State Health Services and local health authorities.These directives and updates will be posted on the 425th District Court web page.
By necessity these directives are under constant review and flexible due to changing conditions.Please be patient as we work through this together.
“We have to be realistic….Things are going to get worse before they get better…. But the kinds of things we are doing now will hopefully mitigate that….To think that right now, everything is going to be ok if you don’t do anything.That’s absolutely incorrect.
We’ve got to really always be ahead of the curve….I’d like to be….criticized for being over reactive.Because when you are dealing with a virus outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are.So therefore you’ve got to jump ahead and stay ahead of the curve.
We’ll be thankful that we are overreacting.”
- Comments by Dr. Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases on Sunday, March 15, 2020.
This is about community and caring for one another.
Hon. Betsy F. Lambeth
425th District Court
Williamson County, Texas