Bexar County District Judge: Remote courtroom hearings have ‘serious issues’

Administrative Judge Ron Rangel says no jury trials causing huge docket backlog

A judge said remote hearings are posing serious issues in the court system.

SAN ANTONIO – When the coronavirus pandemic forced a moratorium on jury service in Bexar County courtrooms, the only way cases could be resolved is through hearings.

While some cases are still being resolved by “in person” hearings, many cases are being handled remotely with an online video conferencing program called Zoom.

But the program has “serious issues,” Administrative Judge Ron Rangel said Wednesday. Among the problems: a lack of efficiency in certain cases.

“We did a Zoom plea with a guy who was on bond,” Rangel said. “That typically takes five minutes in the courtroom, but it took us about an hour to do it.”

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With no juries available, hearings and pleas are the only way to resolve a case.

“There really is no incentive for certain types of cases to work out without the idea that there’s going to be a jury trial," Rangel said.

The result: Cases being reset, which has already created a huge backlog.

“The dockets have been impacted significantly,” Rangel said. “A week ago, each of the 10 criminal district courts was over 100 cases beyond it’s docket.”

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Despite the issues, Rangel predicts remote hearings are likely here to stay.

“We’re going to figure out some way to ensure that these remote hearings are probably going to be a permanent part of the system," he said.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The disease first appeared in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, but spread around the world in early 2020, causing the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic in March. The first case confirmed in the U.S. was in mid-January and the first case confirmed in San Antonio was in mid-February.

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About the Authors:

Paul Venema is a courthouse reporter for KSAT with more than 25 years experience in the role.

Sal Salazar is a photojournalist at KSAT 12. Before coming to KSAT in 1998, he worked at the Fox affiliate in San Antonio. Sal started off his career back in 1995 for the ABC Affiliate in Lubbock and has covered many high-profile news events since. In his free time, he enjoys spending time at home, gaming and loves traveling with his wife.