Trial run: Judges to start planning for summer jury selection

The Hidalgo County Board of Judges met on March 16, 2020, to discuss COVID-19 restrictions to the court system. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

Hidalgo County residents haven’t been summoned for jury duty in more than 13 months.

That could soon change.

The Hidalgo County Board of Judges on Thursday morning decided to start planning for summer jury selection as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to decline here.

“The numbers, thank God, and I can say this with some confidence, the numbers look good,” said Administrative Judge Noe Gonzalez. “That doesn’t mean that we’re good yet.”

However, participation by judges will be voluntary.

Gonzalez, of the 370th state District Court, said during the meeting that he is working with the Hidalgo County District Clerk’s office to come up with a plan so that two or three district courts and two or three county courts that want to try cases can select juries as soon as July.

If the coronavirus cases continue to decline and judges who volunteer to select juries this summer try cases, those trials will concentrate on people who are currently in jail.

“The numbers are looking so good that we can start looking at them and if they stay where they are and keep getting better, we may be able to move up trials,” Gonzalez said.

Last March, as the pandemic reached the Rio Grande Valley, the Hidalgo County Board of Judges canceled jury trials.

At the time, the judges noted how thousands of people from all across the county filtered through the courthouse on a weekly basis, making it an obvious place an outbreak could occur.

Currently, jury trials for all judges are on hold until September.

However, coronavirus cases are on the decline and three weeks ago, Cameron County, which has about half the population of Hidalgo, resumed jury trials.

State District Judge Marla Cuellar, of the 275th state District Court, mentioned during the meeting how state District Judge Gloria Rincones, of the 445th state District Court in Cameron County, shared their plan on resuming jury trials.

Thus far, Cameron County has had three jury trials, which are staggered by floor with jury empaneling spread over several days as opposed to having one large group come in on a single day.

In one trial, an individual who had been in jail for three years was acquitted and two cases resulted in convictions.

Cuellar noted that Cameron County summoned 250 people on two occasions and all of the prospective jurors showed up.

“They were hesitant but once they saw the care they took in preparing for safety they felt very comfortable,” Cuellar said.

The month of July is the tentative start of some jury selection because the judges need rigorous planning to ensure compliance with state and federal health guidelines and for Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa to prepare jury summons and get those mailed, which would take three to four weeks.

During the Board of Judges meeting, which was conducted via video-conferencing and broadcast on YouTube, Cuellar, 449th state District Court Renee R. Betancourt and 390th state District Court Keno Vasquez all told Gonzalez, the administrative judge, that they were ready to go back to court and hold trials.

All three judges said they would volunteer for empaneling summer juries.

However, Gonzalez, the administrative judge, said moving forward on jury trials during the summer is a test.

“The plug may be pulled if the numbers go but, but what everybody is anticipating is that the numbers will not go up,” Gonzalez said.

The administrative judge added that county health authorities are happy with the numbers despite a small up tick over the several days.

“But we are still way below the numbers that should be a major concern,” Gonzalez said. “So we’re going to start the ball rolling on this process.”