COVID-19 complications cause Sherman federal judge to cancel trials until January

By Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
An Eastern District of Texas Courthouse sits in downtown Sherman.

Federal District Judge Amos Mazzant recently cancelled all jury trials in his court until January amid concerns about a COVID-19 outbreak during a recent trial.

Last week, Mazzant was presiding over a jury trial in his courtroom at the Paul Brown Federal Courthouse in Sherman when a juror tested positive for COVID-19, Texas Lawyer reported.

Since trials began again in June, the Eastern District of Texas had had 19 jury trials and eight of them have been in Sherman. Clerk of Court for the Eastern District of Texas David O'Toole said Wednesday that this incident has been the first the district has encountered with positive COVID-19 participants.

In all, 13 people associated with the case in question tested positive for the virus, O'Toole said. That included two jurors, four court staff and then the remaining number were on either the plaintiff or the defense staff. As far as O'Toole knows, only one person reported serious symptoms of the illness and that one person is said to have suffered from mild pneumonia. 

O'Toole said the district's staff is always reevaluating how things are done based on case statistics both regionally and locally and on their own person experience and they will certainly be taking a look at what happened in this case. 

Federal trials in Sherman cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns

The protocols for going forward with a jury trial in the district include the presiding judge sending out a letter to prospective jurors to explain what the protocols will be and giving them an opportunity to express any concerns about serving.

"Then when they show up for voir dire or jury selection, they are again asked if they are concerned about serving and given an opportunity to express that concern," O'Toole said. "We also have daily temperature taking and we have mandatory mask wearing. We have social distancing which is enforced in the courthouse and in the courtroom so that people are sitting for enough apart according to government guidelines."

They also erect physical barriers in the courtroom so that attorneys at the podium and witnesses on the stand can do their part safely without wearing a mask.  

"Of course, we also ask participants, jury and court staff to self disclose any symptoms that they may start to feel during the trial," O'Toole added.

O'Toole  communicates routinely with the 19 judges in the district about the changing COVID-19 situation.

"The health and safety of everyone having business with the court and our court staff is always our first priority," he said. "What some people forget is the federal courts are not merely a government agency. We are an entire independent 3rd branch of government and despite the pandemic, there are still civil disputes and criminal proceedings that need to take place and we are taking all reasonable precautions to provide a safe environment to do that."