BELTON — While jury trials in Bell County are set to resume next month, a backlog of cases is estimated to set the system back years.
Judge Gordon Adams, who heads the 169th District Court, announced courts in the county will resume jury trials starting June 21. Courts had paused trails back in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a backup of cases.
Adams, who is the administrative judge for local courts, said he and his fellow judges have been waiting for the right moment to resume jury trials for a while.
“We’ve been wanting to restart jury trials for months, because of course, with every passing month we are getting behind on jury trials,” Adams said. “We all are very anxious to resume jury trials and try to start catching up.”
While jury trials will resume, the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order Wednesday extending its previous order regarding COVID-19 restrictions.
Despite these restrictions, Adams said he has allowed visitors to the Bell County Justice Center to no longer be required to wear masks.
Adams said his current guess is the pandemic has backed up cases for so long it will take between two or three years to catch back up.
Jeff Buuck, chief deputy for the Bell County Sheriff’s Department, said his estimate on cases catching up was longer — between three and six years.
Buuck said he expects a longer time for recovery based upon his experience with seeing the rise in the Bell County Jail population over the past year.
“As long as these requirements and guidelines are in place, it will be very hard to pick up the pace of jury trials,” Adams said. “Once those restrictions are removed, each individual judge can decide what requirements he or she wants for a particular case.”
Only one criminal and one civil case are expected to take place in June, increasing to an expected three criminal cases in July.
Many of his fellow judges, Adams said, did not even like taking off the two weeks for Christmas due to the amount of backup it creates. He said a delay this long is not something anyone has seen before.
Adams said the backed-up case load was not just criminal cases, but cases of all types that are regularly processed by the courts.
“There is a backup across the board,” Adams said. “There is not only just a backup in criminal cases, but there is a backup in civil litigation, a backup in family and every other category of cases we hear. Certainly from a standpoint of felony criminal jury trials it is very important that they get restarted so some of the ladies and gentlemen who are waiting in jail for jury trails can get their cases moving again.”
Despite the issues, Adams said that once cases start getting dates, he expects more cases to settle instead of going to trial.
While he estimates a long recovery, Buuck said he is hopeful the system will be able to recover.
“We are excited that all governance is getting back to normal and we are hopeful that it does have a positive impact on our population,” Buuck said. “But, given the input of population versus the output of jury trials, I don’t know if it will have much of an effect. But we are hopeful.”