Amanda Provence was on Facebook last March when she happened onto a friend’s post saying she never made plans for Thursdays anymore. It seemed that for the past year she’d been watching 446th District Court Judge Sara Kate Billingsley live on Facebook.

Intrigued, Provence clicked on the page.

“I was instantly hooked,” Provence, the stay-at-home mother of three said.

She’s not alone.

Over 5,900 people have “liked” the court’s official Facebook page since it was created in the early days of COVID-19 and the judge was unable to conduct court in person.

More than 800 people have joined the 446th Court Club page Provence created when it was thought the court would be returning to in-person proceedings full-time.

No one is more surprised by the popularity of the pages then Billingsley, who has been on the bench since 2015.

“I didn’t realize it was a thing until all these people started recognizing me. They were like ‘Aren’t you Judge Sara Kate?’ and taking pictures,” Billingsley said. “The first time it happened, I didn’t have any makeup. I mean, I looked like a troll. This lady wanted her picture taken with me and I was so embarrassed because I literally looked like a troll. I thought ‘Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.’ I’m not sure what’s happened here. I was super flattered and really just gobsmacked by it. I had no idea.”

When COVID-19 hit and the Ector County Courthouse shut down, Billingsley said the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Appeals came out with an order saying judges had the option of conducting their business via Zoom as long as they streamed it live on YouTube or Facebook. Since Ector County didn’t have the ability to do Zoom and didn’t have WiFi, Billingsley and her staff opted to conduct their business from their homes.

Judicial robes hang from a doorway in District Judge Sara Kate Billingsley’s chambers Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 15, 2022, at her home in Odessa. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic over two years ago, Judge Billingsley has been holding court from home over Zoom. A good thing Billingsley pointed out about holding court from home: “I get to wear yoga pants and sneakers under my robes and my dry cleaning bills are considerably less.” (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

Over the last couple of years, Billingsley has conducted thousands of family law-related cases from her home office.

While her counterparts in the criminal and civil divisions of the courthouse have a backlog of cases, Billingsley has managed to stay on top of the 2,500 to 3,000 adoptions, divorces and child custody matters that are filed in the 446th District Court every year.

Billingsley gives much of the credit to the attorneys who readily agreed to switch over to Zoom and her staff members. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, Billingsley said the process works fairly well.

While the Zoom hearings happen multiple times a week, most people watch the 446th on Thursdays, Provence said. It’s on Thursday that people who have just filed for divorce come before Billingsley for rulings on child custody and visitation issues, housing matters and financial issues.

On Thursday mornings, Billingsley meets with all of the attorneys to determine how long they need to argue their cases and in what order the cases should be heard. The litigants are given a number and throughout the day, they can pop in and out of her virtual courtroom to check on Billingsley’s progress.

Provence admits those who watch Billingsley’s courtroom do a fair amount of gossiping, but she and many members of the group are quick to admonish those who post hurtful comments.

“I try to keep it light. Obviously, there are some cases where it’s not possible, but I try to keep the conversation light and friendly. Not negative towards the litigants, or the attorneys and never negative to the judge. But you know, if there is somebody who steps in and does have a negative remark on the judge, it never ends well for them,” Provence said. “There are several viewers that immediately chastise them and let them know that this isn’t the time or the place for those kinds of comments.”

Many of the people who have joined the club page have become friends, even meeting outside in the real world, she said.

“It’s just turned into a bigger thing. It’s a bigger community where we help out people if they need help. We’ve donated to nonprofit organizations, we have raised money for a single mom that was struggling during Christmas. We’ve provided Christmas presents for another family that was struggling, her husband had lost the job,” Provence said. “It grew into something I didn’t expect.”

While she, herself, is a stay-at-home mom, Provence said there are plenty of others who are not.

“We’ll have people that pop back in and out or they’ll message me, ‘Oh, I had a client come in so I missed the last 20 minutes, did I miss anything that’s relevant or important to the case?’ Or they’ll say ‘My boss is in today instead of working from home, I’m going to have to stay off, y’all have to keep me up-to-date because I’ve been following this case for months,’” Provence said.

During one recent Thursday, court watchers commented on the swiftness with which a divorced couple began dating others, about Billingsley’s hair and their love for a terminally ill man who adopted a 44-year-old man he’d known since the age of 3. One bemoaned the fact she’d missed the conclusion of a hearing because she’d been switching clothes from the washer to the dryer. She was quickly filled in.

One doesn’t have to watch Facebook very long to realize Billingsley is much loved.

“We adore her. It’s funny, we always say the Number One rule of the 446 club is we don’t talk bad about JSK,” Provence said. “That’s our thing. We made a little meme based on the Fight Club movie poster. We love how compassionate she is and how fair she is. She doesn’t make any decisions lightly. She understands the weight of her responsibility.”

Those who watch Billingsley have come to appreciate how consistent she is in her rulings, Provence said. In fact, Provence said she created 30 Bingo cards filled with common Billingsley quotes and shared them with members who played Bingo while watching court.

Her most common phrases? “Well, neither of you came to my table with clean hands” and “Court orders mean something or they don’t and I assure you, they do.”

District Judge Sara Kate Billingsley flips a highlighter for a photo in her chambers Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 15, 2022, at her home in Odessa. Billingsley said Zoom court fans that watch her proceedings have pointed out that the judge tends to flip her highlighter at telling times during her cases. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

There were also squares on the Bingo card referencing Billingsley’s penchant for Starbucks and flipping her highlighter while deep in thought, Provence said.

Watching court has given her a deeper respect for attorneys and the justice system, Provence said. In fact, she hired one of the attorneys who regularly appears in Billingsley’s courtroom to handle the adoption of her two oldest children by her husband. Because it was uncontested, Provence said she was thrilled that Billingsley was able to preside over the matter.

“We’ve learned that lawyers are a lot more human than you give them credit for,” she said.

Billingsley said in recent months people have had the option of having their court proceedings done in-person, but most still prefer to have them via Zoom because of the many benefits.

It can be less expensive because expert witnesses don’t have to fly in and stay at hotels and litigants don’t have to take off the whole day from work.

There’s another benefit, however, Billingsley said.

It’s exposed a great many people to a world they’ve not seen before.

“Several people have reached out over the last 23 months to say, ‘Hey, I became a court clerk because of your court. I literally went and got a job as a court clerk because you know what you guys do is awesome and I wanted to be a part of it,’” Billingsley said. “We’ve had several people reach out and say ‘I’m taking the LSAT, because I want to be a lawyer. What you guys do is awesome and I went in on that.’ Or ‘I watched a lawyer who was terrible and I want to make sure that that injustice never happens. I want to go fight for people.’”

There are some drawbacks, however, Billingsley said. Because she’s holding court virtually, people have sometimes failed to respect the solemnity of the proceedings or simply not realized they can be seen on camera at inopportune times. Unfortunately, she said, she doesn’t have the ability to unmute people or turn off their cameras.

“It’s not the best situation to hold court when you’re on a drilling rig with bad service and your boss’s phone is ringing next to you and there’s just chaos everywhere,” Billingsley said.

She’s also found that she misses the drive home from the court house. She used to drive home blasting music on the radio, allowing her to leave work at work. Now, she finds herself unwinding in the kitchen.

“I cook like a fiend. I love to cook is my love language,” Billingsley said. “I cook all the feels, good feels and bad feels. I cook them all.”

She can’t wait for the day when things can get back to normal, although she’ll miss being able to wear yoga pants to court, Billingsley said. Oh, and she’s not looking forward to wearing her six-inch stilettos again.

“My favorite place in the entire world is a courtroom. I think it is the most reverent and amazing and beautiful place that any person can be and I miss my courtroom every single day,” she said. “I miss the way that people behave in a courtroom, because you wouldn’t show up and light a cigarette in my courtroom. You wouldn’t be doing drugs in my courtroom actively. You wouldn’t be naked. You wouldn’t be eating or you wouldn’t be falling asleep.”

District Judge Sara Kate Billingsley poses for a photo in her chambers Tuesday afternoon at her home in Odessa. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic over two years ago, Judge Billingsley has been holding court fro home over Zoom. (Odessa American/Eli Hartman)

Because she must remain impartial and insulated from people who comment on ongoing cases, Billingsley said she makes sure not to read the Facebook comments. However, her staff has kept her aware of the compliments she and the attorneys routinely receive.

Also, when the county took a recent Thursday off because of the snow, Billingsley held a Zoom session for anyone who just wanted to chat with her and the attorneys informally.

“Lots of people watched and asked questions and overwhelmingly people said that it was so nice to be able to see us all just as normal humans, that we weren’t lawyers and judges,” Billingsley said. “We were just shooting the breeze with each other and telling jokes.”

The judge said she is glad people have had an opportunity to see what life in her courtroom is like, especially the lighter side, like adoptions.

“I love my job. I’m called to the bench and I think that we do good work. I think we help lots and lots of people and while it is exhausting it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever gotten to do and it’s a privilege,” Billingsley said. “I would like to do it as long as the citizens will have me.”