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Legal system forced to adapt amid COVID-19 crisis

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Posted at 5:06 PM, Mar 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-27 21:50:52-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — The coronavirus pandemic has led to a balancing act with the scales of justice as judges and others must consider public safety along with inmates' rights to a hearing.

Most hearings at the Nueces County Courthouse are postponed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading there. Most, but not all.

“The coronavirus is here but the jail does not stop, and justice does not stop,” said 347th District Court Judge Missy Medary.

Medary is one of several testing a new remote system for essential hearings. With the defendant in the courtroom and the judge in her chambers, attorneys and court staff connect via Zoom video conference.

“Remote hearings became something we had to consider because the hearings in the jails and the courthouse are essential,” said Medary.

Essential hearings include jail cases, domestic violence and risk assessments for non-violent offenders. A remote hearing room is being installed at the county jail. Once that’s in place, Judge Medary and her colleagues will preside from home.

While keeping courtrooms empty is a necessity during this COVID-19 crisis, some believe these remote hearings are the start of a new era for the legal system.

“I think the legal business is going to be forever changed after the coronavirus,” said Medary.

Other court officers also see the benefit of remote hearings.

“We’re able to have hearings with people from across the state,” said Nueces County District Attorney Mark Gonzalez. “Imagine if this had occurred 10 years ago. we’d probably have to shut down or be exposed every day.”

These remote hearings have gone fairly smoothly so far. Defense attorneys are also on board with the change.

“I’ve been trying to institute this in Nueces County for years,” said attorney Chris Gale. “It’s going to be difficult for some people, but for me, I welcome it.”

While many hearings may be able to be done remotely the future, some cases will still require a courtroom.

“Obviously we’ll always be back at the courthouse for any type of jury trial, but i think the lawyers will get used to this,” said Medary.

While the remote hearings are recorded, defendants and their attorneys can be placed in a separate unrecorded room to preserve attorney-client privilege.