District courts reopen after nearly year-long hiatus

Ector County Sheriff’s Office deputy JJ Garcia, left, watches as visitors walk through a security checkpoint as they enter the Ector County Courthouse Tuesday afternoon in Odessa. (Eli Hartman | Odessa American)

Ector County’s state district courts returned to live, in-person court proceedings this week after being forced to operate virtually for nearly one year due to COVID-19 and judges, attorneys and even bailiffs couldn’t be happier.

Jury selections for several cases were held last Friday so that trials could begin immediately, 244th District Judge James Rush said on Tuesday.

“It’s so good to be back in court again,” Rush said. “I’m so proud of our community for showing up for jury duty — we had a lot of juror’s turn out. We’re already in the middle of a case.”

Due to the COVID-imposed closedown, criminal trials had to be postponed, so there’s a long backlog of cases pending, Rush said.

“We were able to have hearings on Zoom, but not any criminal trials,” Rush said. “The U.S. Constitution guarantees that everyone has a right to a public trial. We couldn’t do that on Zoom.”

“You need to have a jury present, along with witnesses.”

Odessa attorney Bobby Bland agrees. Even though hearings continued to be held via Zoom during the pandemic, that to had its challenges and limitations.

“You lose something when you have a hearing on Zoom online …,” said Bland. “You can’t interact the same way as you would if you were together in one room.”

The transition to Zoom took some patience on everyone’s part, said Bland, who recently retired as Ector County’s District Attorney.

“Just trying to figure out how to share screens to show documents would slow things down,” he said. “It changed how everything flowed.”