McAllen federal courts resume normal operations

In this Aug. 28, 2018 file photo, the Bentsen Tower on Bicentennial Boulevard in McAllen. (Joel Martinez |

McALLEN — The McAllen federal courthouse resumed normal operations this week for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced its closure to the public last April.

The resumption of normal operations was announced Tuesday in an order handed down jointly by the three U.S. District judges who preside over the McAllen Division of the Southern District of Texas.

However, with the order signed just one day after a federal holiday, not everyone with court business was immediately aware of the change. And after a year of court hearings being held via Zoom videoconference, some of the district’s judges and magistrates are allowing for a buffer period before returning entirely to in-person court proceedings.

Magistrate Judges Juan F. Alanis and Nadia S. Medrano are continuing to allow the public to access proceedings in their courts via Zoom, according to court staff.

A representative for Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker did not return messages as of press time Thursday.

As for the district judges, though they have handed down orders jointly regarding courthouse access and COVID-19 safety precautions over the last year, each has responded differently to the order they signed Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane will continue to offer Zoom access to the public through June, according to his staff.

It was in Crane’s courtroom where the first trials to occur in federal court since the start of the pandemic also took place earlier this year. Both involved single defendants and a minimal number of witnesses.

Though attorneys, the defendants and jurors were allowed to be in the courtroom in person during the February trials, members of the public and the media were only allowed access via Zoom.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Tuesday’s new order, U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa has continued to allow Zoom access to his court through this week, but will transition to in-person only access beginning Monday.

Those who attend his court will be required to wear masks and may not remove them, his staff said.

And finally, U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez ended Zoom accessibility to her courtroom on Tuesday — the same day the order came down — with the exception of one defendant who was being housed at a prison in Zapata County.

As Alvarez sought to wrap up her docket late Tuesday afternoon, it was apparent that at least two attorneys had not at first realized there had been a change in the courthouse’s status. The two men arrived to the courtroom late and were subsequently reprimanded by the judge for their tardiness.

According to Tuesday’s order, courthouse staff and visitors are still required to wear masks while in common areas. Each judge may also continue to limit the occupancies of their courtrooms or make other accommodations regarding mask-wearing.

“(T)o provide uniformity and in the interest of safety for those working in and coming to the United States Courthouse in the McAllen Division, everyone including employees, members of the public, jurors and prospective jurors, lawyers, litigants, contractors, family members, witnesses, and court observers are still required to wear masks in hallways and other public areas,” the order reads, in part.