On March 5, 2021, the Supreme Court of Texas issued its Thirty-Sixth Order Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster, which provided, among other things, that, subject to stated constitutional limitations, in-person proceedings may be conducted in the district courts, so long as minimum standard health protocols are followed. The Order prompted the Local Administrative Law Judge for the Harris County District Civil Courts, Honorable Robert Schaffer, to modify the existing COVID-19 Operating Plan to allow for the resumption of in-person proceedings and to set the minimum standard health protocols for such proceedings in an effort to to keep the participants and the public safe. Here are some of the highlights of the order:

  • In general, there will be continued compliance with masking, social distancing, and safety protocols as set forth in the existing COVID-19 Operating Plan for the Harris County District Courts, County Courts at Law & Probate Courts as well as any protocols mandated by public health personnel, county officials, and the Supreme Court of Texas.

  • Reasonable efforts will be made to conduct remote proceedings and to accommodate those who request to appear remotely.

  • To maintain social distancing within the courtroom, each court will make every effort to reduce the number of in-person hearings and schedule them accordingly.

  • In addition to the elevators, restrooms, and hallways, social distancing will be maintained in the gallery and well of each courtroom.

  • Hand sanitizer, tissues, and “Stop the Spread of Germs” flyers have been placed in appropriate areas.

  • Court participants will continue to be screened for COVID-19.

  • Face coverings will still be required for those wishing to enter the courthouse, and individuals who refuse to wear a mask can be asked to leave the building. Those who do not have a mask will be provided with one, depending upon availability.

In accordance with the order issued by the Local Administrative Judge, the Family Law Division, County Civil Courts at Law, and Probate Courts have established their own guidelines, which offer some details as to what attorneys may expect under the new orders. Docket calls will continue to be virtual, so don’t forget to brush up on your Zoom skills, if you haven’t done so already. Once in-person proceedings resume, they will be set one at a time, and all parties, including pro se litigants, will need to inform the court of the number of people they intend to bring to the proceeding. Additionally, capacity limits set by the fire marshal and existing order will be enforced.

Be sure to read the entire order before heading to court or scheduling that in-person proceeding. While the modification order does allow for the resumption of in-person proceedings, many courts will continue to conduct hearings and other proceedings virtually. When in doubt, please contact the individual court, as procedures may differ from court to court.