BEAUMONT, Texas — The recent omicron COVID-19 variant surge has made it challenging for area judges to continue courtroom operations.
Multiple Southeast Texas judges opted to not have in-person jury trials for the month of January. The hiatus has caused a backlog in cases.
All but two judges canceled in-person jury trials for the month of January. The omicron surge has affected different courtrooms in different ways, like in the family court system.
“Unlike in any of the other courts, like criminal or civil, we have a statutory deadline that we have to meet,” Judge Randy Shelton, Jefferson County judge, said. “The cases are not supposed to exceed 18 months, and that’s even with an extension. So, we have a lot of cases that have been hanging on for a while waiting for a jury.”
After Christmas, several county employees caught COVID-19. Judges are following the advice of health professionals to reduce the spread.
“I think all the courts are following the recommendation of the County Public Health Dr. Ede,” Judge Shelton said.
The backlog in cases is not only affecting courtrooms but also people awaiting trial. Defense attorneys said their clients have been awaiting trials in jail cells and it is taking its toll.
“Well the main thing is cases are not moving as quickly because we're not able to go to trial,” Ryan Gertz, defense attorney, said. “So cases that have an agreed resolution can still be pled, and the courts are actively trying to get those cases resolved and off their docket. But unfortunately, oftentimes the best way to get a case pled is to have a looming trial date.”
Attorneys know the courts are doing the best they can, and that judges are trying to do their part in reducing the omicron spread.
“You know this new variant has just been so rapidly contagious, that it is really kind of frightening,” Gertz said. “How easily it can spread, especially if you have a group of 100 people in a room to pick a jury, and so that's a real challenge. I think that the courts are doing their best to manage.”
Jefferson County judges said they are ready to have people back inside of courtrooms. They hope in-person court cases can resume soon.