Grand jury selection for district court stays online, no in-person gathering needed

394th DISTRICT – The district court has changed the way it summons residents for jury duty in the past year, and the office is hoping to get the word out about the court’s move to qualify or exempt jurors through a website, saving residents the trip to the courthouse.

During the pandemic, many courts in Texas shut their doors. The legal system sought new ways to meet and began holding virtual court proceedings to cross-examine witnesses, have bond hearings and carry out jury selections, which usually involve hundreds of area residents gathering in the same room for hours.

During COVID-19, that type of gathering hasn’t been safe or feasible. Judge Roy Ferguson was determined to provide timely access to the courts whenever possible, and so he implemented a new method for grand jury selections. While the future of the pandemic is still uncertain, the changes made for jury selection this past year may be here to stay.

Every six months, the court assembles a grand jury, but when it came time, Ferguson was hesitant to gather people in person. Normally, 250 to 300 individuals are summoned to the courthouse, but many wouldn’t show up, said Sarah Fellows Martinez, Presidio County’s deputy district clerk.

Around 60 would arrive, but, “With COVID, that’s a lot of people,” she said. So instead, the coury began summoning people with a bright yellow piece of mail. On it was a website to visit and a special password. Once on the website, potential jurors answer a series of questions to find out if they qualify or are exempt from being a juror.

Residents no longer have to take off work, drive long distances or show up at a specified time, especially if they know they are exempt from jury duty due to advanced age or other factors. For those who cannot access the internet, the summons also has a phone number to call for assistance.

“The district court with Judge Ferguson has been diligent in keeping everything moving and has been very successful, if I might add,” said Fellows Martinez. Ferguson has hosted over 3,000 Zoom hearings, and even a jury trial through Zoom.

The new jury process keeps the public safe and healthy, and also comes with a lower price tag. Rather than handing out the typical $10 payment to those who show up at the courthouse regardless of being qualified or exempted, only those who are qualified receive a payment.

“We’re not only helping people stay healthy, we’re saving the county money and our numbers have gone up. We’ve gone from about a 10% turnout upstairs [in the courtroom] to a 60% turnout online,” Fellows Martinez said.

Those that are selected to serve on the grand jury are notified through an email from Court Coordinator Lori Holguin. Because Ferguson can introduce those jurors to the grand jury process through Zoom, he doesn’t have to travel around the district’s counties, which opens up his calendar to have more days available to have hearings.

“What we want the public to understand is that they need to read the summons when they get it in the mail,” Fellows Martinez said. For the foreseeable future, jury summoning will be online instead of in the county courthouse courtroom.