One thing we know about COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is that new information develops on a daily basis. The court system had to respond to the situation to resolve many issues that have arisen.
Will there still be family court hearings and trials in Dallas area courts in the state of disaster?
The Texas Supreme Court issued guidance on non-essential matters for the court system on March 12, 2020:
- If a court deems that non-essential (see below), in-person proceedings may pose an unnecessary or unreasonable risk to participants, court staff, or the public, the court should avoid that risk, when possible, by simple delay or by a telephone or video remote appearance. Our suggestion is that you follow this practice until at least April 1.
- Essential proceedings include, but are not limited to, criminal magistration proceedings, CPS removal hearings, temporary restraining orders / temporary injunctions, juvenile detention hearings, family violence protective orders, and certain mental health proceedings.
- Courts should schedule or suspend proceedings to avoid the gathering of large groups of people until at least April 1, including jury trials and large docket calls.
- Courts should publicly encourage persons with COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms, a fever, or who are coughing or sneezing, to contact the court before appearing. Courts should also publicly encourage attorneys who know that clients, witnesses, or others have such a condition to alert the court in advance. The court should make reasonable accommodations and reschedule appearances and hearings as needed.
- You may wish to consult with your local health authority for additional guidance on the timing of the suspension of proceedings as conditions in the local community may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
- Courts should implement telephonic or video remote appearances for all proceedings which may occur remotely.
- Please be aware that the Open Courts provision of the Constitution will generally require that the public have access to proceedings. If you hold telephonic or video remote hearings, you should consider a method by which the public can have access.
Then on March 13, the two highest courts in Texas issued joint guidelines for the Texas court system to handle the current situation. The Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals FIRST EMERGENCY ORDER REGARDING THE COVID-19 STATE OF DISASTER is intended to provide consistency and stability among the courts during this time of national disaster. In light of Governor Abbott’s declaration of a state of disaster for all counties in Texas, the Courts direct as follows:
Subject only to constitutional limitations, all courts in Texas may in any case, civil or criminal—and must to avoid risk to court staff, parties, attorneys, jurors, and the public— without a participant’s consent:
a. Modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order, for a stated period ending no later than 30 days after the Governor’s state of disaster has been lifted;
b. Allow or require 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, such as by teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or other means;
c. Consider as evidence sworn statements made out of court or sworn testimony given remotely, out of court, such as by teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or other means;
d. Conduct proceedings away from the court’s usual location, but in the county of venue, and only with reasonable notice and access to the participants and the public;
e. Require 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;
f. Take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings to the threat of COVID-19.
The order took effect March 13, 2020 and remains in effect until May 8, 2020.
Additionally, the area courts have specifically begun canceling dockets and moving to handling only essential matters. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins cancelled all jury trials until April 13th (in other words, there will be a jury called on April 13th, as of now).
The Collin .County District Courts also released a statement cancelling all non-essential matters, leaving only emergency matters to be heard between now and April 1st.
Tarrant County has cancelled jury service until April 17th according to an article in the Star Telegram.
But what do we do about exchanging our children under a Texas standard possession order because of the change in school schedules?
In response to the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, schools began to halt in-person classes to contain the spread of the contagious germs. As a result, school officials and their lawyers used imprecise and inexact language regarding the extension. Most school districts called the time off “extended Spring Break” instead of disaster break or whatever. This imprecise language has caused a great deal of confusion among parents as to interpretation of the Texas standard possession schedule. As a result, the area state district courts began responding to the question: “When does Spring Break possession end?”
Judge Dennise Garcia of the 303rd District Court in Dallas County posted on social media: “7 out of 7 Dallas County Family Court District Judges agree that the Standard Possession Schedule follows the originally published school calendar. (No extensions due only to recent changes in the school shutdowns).” In other words, whatever the original school calendar provided is the governing rules for the parents to go by. Dallas is not recognizing any extension of Spring Break just because the schools extended the time period.
The Collin County District Courts also released a statement on Facebook stating: “Some school districts are talking about “extending” spring break, but we believe a Standard Possession Order under the Texas Family Code follows the originally-published school calendar.” Further, they have directed that parents should follow the original schedule as if school remains in session (in other words, the time for exchange should be according to the schedule as if school were in session. Dallas family court judge Dennise Garcia “liked” the post by the Collin County judge, indicating her approval of the statement.
Following suit, Tarrant County District Courts issued a new policy on March 13th: “It is also the policy of the above courts that even though some school districts are “extending” spring breaks because of COVID-19, spring break possession ends according to the previously scheduled spring break as set forth in the school calendar for the applicable school district.”
Judge Sherry Shipman in Denton County released a similar statement: “The Denton County District Judges take the position that any school district’s additional school closure following the week of Spring Break (whether the district calls it an extension of Spring Break or not) does not extend a parent’s period of possession beyond the week designated for spring break according to the school’s academic calendar and the possession schedule in the final order.”
In Rockwall County, the 382nd and 439th District Courts posted the following on the Rockwall County websites: “TO ALL ATTORNEYS AND/OR PARENTS: It is the Court’s policy to follow the originally published school calendar regarding access and possession of children during Spring Break for the purposes of interpretation and enforcement of Court Orders.”
In Kaufman County, Judge Casey Blair of the 86th District Court indicated that Kaufman County Courts would also be following the originally printed school calendar to determine Spring Break possession.
On March 16th, Galveston County took the step of issuing a “Standing Order and Notice to All Galveston County Families with Court Orders Regarding Visitation for Spring Break” stating: “For Parents who have NOT returned the children by Monday, March 16, 2020: YOU MUST RETURN THE CHILDREN IMMEDIATELY OR YOU WILL BE FOUND IN CONTEMPT OF COURT AND WILL BE FINED AND SANCTIONED.” This Order was signed by Judge Judge Anne B. Darring of the 306th District Court, Judge John Grady of County Court at Law #1; Judge Kerri Foley of County Court at Law #2; and Judge Jack D. Ewing of County Court at Law #3.
The effect the Coronavirus is having on our courts is unprecedented. Never before have we seen courts limit in-person hearings to essential and emergency matters only. With the release of new court policies over the past two days, however, it is clear the courts are trying to give parents guidance prior to the previously calendared Standard Spring Break possession ending on Sunday, March 15th at 6:00 p.m. Of course, common sense and co-parenting should prevail. Working things out between two reasonable parents is the best action. Asking which parent is working and which can take off to care for the children would be the most logical thing to do under the circumstances. Unfortunately, many parents are unable to reason with each other, necessitating the courts to provide guidance in this unprecedented time.