TYLER, Texas (News release) - On March 2, Governor Gregg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which lifts the face mask mandate and restores occupancy to businesses to 100 percent when it goes into effect on Wednesday, March 10.
In response, the Texas Supreme Court, which governs judicial proceedings, issued the 36th Emergency Order on March 5, providing revised criteria for courts to conduct in-person proceedings, including jury trials. The Texas Supreme Court encouraged courts to conduct non-jury trials remotely, required that the local administrative judge establish “minimum standard health protocols” for all in-person proceedings, and required that courts take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings to the threat of COVID-19, including requiring compliance with social distancing protocols and requiring face coverings.
Local Administrative Judge Robert Wilson, of the 321st District Court, consulted with the local health authority, sheriff and county judge, as well as other members of the Smith County judiciary, to establish how to proceed. Until further notice, the “minimum standard health protocols” that will govern judicial proceedings and court facilities in Smith County will include: (1) screening for high temperatures upon entry of the judicial facility (2) wearing face coverings in each courtroom and in all common areas (including bathrooms, hallways and central jury room) (3) social distancing when feasible and (4) continuing to restrict capacity in courtrooms.
These “minimum standard health protocols” apply to the Smith County Courthouse and outlying county precinct offices, which house the Justices of the Peace courtrooms. Each judge could establish additional safety protocols for their courts.
Many hearings in the various courts will also be conducted remotely using the Zoom videoconferencing platform, Judge Wilson said.
Smith County jury trials have already restarted and safety protocols have been implemented, including mask wearing and social distancing.
The Smith County Commissioners Court will continue to highly encourage people to wear masks and socially distance during Commissioners Court meetings, which are held in the Courthouse Annex.
Non-judicial county facilities (including the Courthouse Annex, Cotton Belt, Animal Control, Elections Administration Office and the Veterans Office) will not require face coverings, but members of the public are highly encouraged to wear face masks when social distancing is not feasible. Temperature screening will continue at all county facilities.
These minimum standard health protocols for judicial buildings are consistent with the guidance of the Texas Supreme Court and Office of Court Administration and in conformity with Attorney General Opinion KP-0322, which determined that “judges possess broad inherent authority to control orderly proceedings in their courtrooms, and pursuant to that authority, they can require individuals in the courtroom to wear facial coverings.”
“The county remains committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for its employees and the public, including the many members of the public who are summoned for jury service,” Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said. “We will do our best to follow the guidelines of both the Governor’s Office and the Texas Supreme Court, while being ever-conscious of the input of our local health authority. We deeply appreciate the public’s continued flexibility on the local level as we react to changing directives from the state.”
Smith County residents can conduct much of their county business online, at www.smith-county.com, including paying taxes, renewing auto registration, requesting public documents or paying court fees and fines.