Editor’s Note: The Texas Supreme Court issued the following advisory.
Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht ordered the Supreme Court Building indefinitely closed to the public Wednesday in expanding efforts to thwart spread of COVID-19. The State Preservation Board also closed the adjacent Capitol complex.
Under an order issued late Tuesday the Texas Supreme Court emphasized that court-ordered child-custody schedules following school calendars shall follow the original school schedule as published even as so many schools close to constrain the developing coronavirus pandemic.
“Possession and access shall not be affected by the school’s closure that arises from an epidemic or pandemic, including what is commonly referred to as the COVID-19 pandemic,” the order clarified. But parties were not barred by the order from altering a possession schedule by agreement if allowed by the foundational court order, or courts from modifying their orders.
The latest order follows one Monday that postponed four cases set for oral argument March 25 in Austin. The Court last week canceled oral argument set for April 9 in El Paso.
The Supreme Court has issued two other orders and joined with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in one to address potential judicial ramifications from the coronavirus threat in Texas.
In efforts to protect court participants and court staff because of coronavirus concerns, the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals issued a joint emergency order that clears the way for video- and teleconference proceedings and to postpone deadlines affecting cases.
The order follows Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide disaster declaration and runs no later than 30 days after the governor’s disaster order ends.
The joint order follows two others by Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht assigning district and court of appeals judges to hear enforcement cases challenging involuntary quarantines. Both were issued under emergency powers in the Texas Health and Safety Code for controlling infectious disease.
Under the order, state courts may modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, “whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order,” and may extend limitations statutes in any civil case. Court proceedings may be conducted outside a court’s usual location in the venue county but must provide reasonable notice and access to the participants and the public. Any such modifications and limitations may be discretionary and without a participant’s consent but are required when “risk to court staff, parties, attorneys, jurors and the public” exists.
In court proceedings, sworn statements made out of court or sworn testimony given remotely, such as by teleconferencing, videoconferencing or other means, may be considered as evidence. The order allows anyone involved in any hearing, deposition, or other proceeding of any kind – “including but not limited to a party, attorney, witness, or court reporter, but not including a juror” – to participate remotely.
The order notes that its provisions are subject only to constitutional limitations.
The order also:
- Requires every participant in a proceeding to alert the court if the participant has, or knows of another participant who has, COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms, or a fever, cough or sneezing and that courts take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings to the threat of COVID-19.
- Take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings to the threat of COVID-19.
On March 6 the Supreme Court issued a first order assigning 31 district judges to hear cases involving involuntary quarantines outside their judicial administrative regions and followed that March 13 by assigning 21 Texas appeals court judges to hear appeals in any court-of-appeals district from involuntary quarantine cases.
No challenges to ordered quarantines had been reported by March 16.
The joint emergency order runs until May 8, unless extended by the chief justice. Both judicial-assignment orders are scheduled to end September 30.