By: Mark Diaz
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The Status of The Galveston Courthouse After The July 10th Fire
Galveston Courthouse Fire
Every day, we get calls from clients about whether or not they have to appear. The answer is different for every court. Most of you know by now, that back on July 10th, there was a fire in the Galveston courthouse on the third floor. It’s rumored to have started from a coffee pot on someone’s desk.
Now from the pictures I saw, the fire didn’t do all that much damage. However, the sprinkler system ran for a very long time, to the point that the water damaged the third floor, second floor, and parcel. When I say damaged, I mean, we had to rip out all the carpet, a bunch of wood was destroyed, walls that had to be repainted, some major restoration going on.
On the first floor, you had Billy Williams court, Child Support court, the jury assembly room, and more importantly, you had the DA’s office. All of which have been gutted and prepared for restoration after all that damage. As a result, the only floor we have that was not damaged beyond use was the fourth floor, which means that there are four courtrooms available for all the judges to share. They’ve worked out a system where they rotate time inside each courtroom.
There are some courts, that in order to try and move their docket a little better have now started having afternoon dockets, starting at 1:30. To help move things along until the damage is repaired. I don’t have a good date to tell you when that’s going to be, I had a judge recently tell me that she plans on picking juries in October. So, it should be done sometime in September, I suppose if at least one court is going to start jury trials again.
The question we get every day is do I have to come to court? The answer is not the same for everyone. As some of you know, I have clients that know each other. So, a client will call and ask if they have to be in court the next day, and I’ll tell them no. Two days later another client will call and ask the same question but I say yes.
They will say well you didn’t make John Doe appear in court the other day. It’s not up to me. It’s the individual courts that have different policies. Some courts don’t make anyone appear. Some courts make drug testers appear but not necessarily everyone. There’s another court that doesn’t make anyone appear unless they have to. What I’m saying is that there is no uniform practice in the courthouse.
How The Delta Variant Is Affecting The Galveston Courthouse
That kind of brings up another problem that we have going on right now, which is that COVID, as you all know, is now on the rise again. I think last Friday was Galveston County’s biggest number of reported cases. With 452 new cases in one day. That’s the biggest number we’ve ever had in a day. Today it was 269 new cases.
When we first had COVID in 2020, it was determined to be unsafe to have that many people in a room. They say now, that the delta variant spreads more easily than the previous COVID that we had going around. The issue is, we don’t know yet what the health department is going to say about congregating in groups again, while COVID continues to grow the way it is.
I don’t have any way to know if jury trials will resume in October. Now, as I said, I had one judge tell me that she plans on picking four panels in October. I guess October is far enough away that we don’t know where the COVID numbers will be by then. I don’t know what the health district is going to say about people congregating in the jury room.
Mask Mandates In Galveston Courthouse
The other issue that seems to be coming back around, is whether or not you have to wear a mask. That’s another area where we don’t have uniform policies in the county. I guess you could say, because of the governor’s position, they cannot mandate masks in the courthouse. In the entry, in the hallways, etc.
However, individual judges do have the ability to mandate masks in their courtroom. So, we have some courtrooms that do have a mask mandate. We have some that don’t. I don’t know what that will look like if we start to pick juries again in October. Before this fire, we were picking juries in the jury assembly room, and the jurors were kept six feet apart, and everyone needed to wear a mask in the jury assembly room.
That made picking a jury hard, which I think I’ve talked about before. It is unclear now, whether the governor’s new position that no one can have a mask mandate, would mean that the potential jurors in the jury room would now have to wear a mask or not. I think it could be interpreted that they would not have to if they did not want to. However once in a judge’s courtroom, the judge can mandate.
Will Trials In Galveston County Resume Soon?
So I don’t know what it’s going to look like once the courthouse is repaired. I know we have at least one judge who is going to do everything she can to resume jury trials in October. I guess the only way that could stop would be if the Galveston County Health District issues mandates regarding safety, we’ll have to wait and see.
For those of you that are current clients, you’re just going to have to continue to call. If you have your email address on file with me, you have access to my system and you can check on your court date. We try to update you on whether or not you have to appear.
Since things have been changing so rapidly, I have Karina calling, typically starting the week before to tell everyone for next week who does and who does not have to appear. In some courts, no one has to appear unless you need to talk to the judge, unless you physically need to be in front of the judge, you don’t have to appear. I can take care of it for you.
On at least three occasions we have had policies change. In those cases, we give you a call and inform you that you need to be there in person. Then the court makes the change about who has to be there. So now you don’t have to be there. People get upset when they find out they didn’t have to be there and we told them they did have to be there. It’s not because we don’t know what’s going on, it’s because things change, according to the availability of courtrooms in the courthouse on any given day.
Again, recently, in one court, we got a notice on Friday, that Monday’s docket was going to be at 1:30 in the afternoon, and our clients needed to be there. So, we needed to call them all and tell them. I know it makes it difficult for you to take off work or tell your boss you need time off in the morning, and it turns out that you need to leave the office at 1:00 to make it to court at 1:30. It’s not fun for us either.
I don’t make the rules. If the judge tells me you have to be there and changes the time, there is nothing I can do about it. Now, most judges are understanding. If it was a situation where you were going to get fired, the judge would likely let me appear and get you another date later in the week, just to make sure that you do appear.
What I’m saying is some people get frustrated with everything that’s going on. We have very little control over the dockets and who has to appear. Once the building restoration is finished, and all goes back to normal, we will know which courts will make you appear, and which courts won’t. Some of that will be related to COVID numbers and whatnot because some courts treat it differently than others. However, it will get back to being a more stable environment.
Why Are Cases Being Delayed
Another issue that a lot of clients have is they feel like nothing’s going on. In some cases, that is not true, but there is some truth to it in others. It’s not because nothing is going on. It’s because the DA’s office was gutted due to the flooding, and so they have to rebuild the office, which means prosecutors have nowhere to work.
If there is a meeting that needs to happen to look at a video, it can’t be done in the office right now, because there’s no meeting place. If prosecutors need to meet with a witness in person to discuss a case, in particular, it can be difficult as there’s nowhere for them to meet.
As I understand it, with the computer system that they use for their work, their desktop has to be on and connected for them to access the system remotely from home. Since the office has been gutted, that means their desktop computers are not connected. So they can’t get to their online system to be able to get in and look at a case and look at notes. That’s not to say none of the prosecutors are working, it’s just that what they’re having to do is come physically get files, take them home, and do it all the old-fashioned way.
They are doing that, but they’re not taking hundreds of cases home at a time. It’s just not realistic. They’re taking the cases that are coming up on the docket. On some bonded cases, things are going to slow down because there’s not necessarily a sense of urgency for them, depending upon which court your case happens to be pending in. Deadlines aren’t coming up, and they put that case on the back burner. If a deadline is not coming up on your case, they’re more worried about the cases ahead of yours that do have deadlines coming up.
It’s frustrating for us too, because there are things I’m waiting for so that I can proceed forward on your cases, and I can’t do anything until they get it to me. I understand it, if my building caught on fire, and I had all this damage, I would be in the same situation.
That’s the status of the courthouse, it should open up soon and be repaired. However, we may have another, not necessarily shut down, but slow down in the jury trial process because of the rise in COVID numbers. We are all waiting to see what the Health District does about that. That will be Dr. kaisers decision.
In the past, the presiding judge communicates with Dr. Kaiser to see what the best practices are for having people congregate in the courthouse, dockets, the number of people that can be in a courtroom, those types of things. We will have to wait and see how this goes, but we will keep all of our clients updated moving forward.
If you have been charged with a crime in Galveston County call Galveston criminal defense lawyer, Mark Diaz at 409) 515-6170 for a free consultation today