Smith County is preparing to reopen its courts. During the Tuesday meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court, Judge Nathaniel Moran detailed how the county will go about doing this.
Moran said that in-person hearings were taking place but that jury trials would not recommence until August, according to guidelines enacted by the state.
"The OCA (judicial council) said, by June 1 if you want any in-person hearings, a judge must put together a plan and it must be approved by a regional judge and then passed up (to the state level). Local Administrative Judge Judge Kerry Russel put together a COVID plan and sent that to regional judge who approved it, and the OCA put its blessing on it. This allows us to move forward with in-person hearings. The Office of Court Administration said no jury trials until August," Moran said.
The court will begin the grand jury selection process on July 16. Moran discussed using COVID-19 relief funds to rent a city of Tyler facility that is big enough to enforce social distancing through that process.
"The grand jury selection will be done by July 16," said Moran. "I would like to secure Harvey (Convention Center) or the Rose Garden Center to conduct that grand jury selection process, which is much like the selection process for a regular jury, it's just not as many people. We will spread everybody out."
During the meeting, Moran announced that the Smith County Commissioners Court meetings will reopen to the public beginning June 16.
He said social distancing standards would be implemented and the number of people allowed into the room would be limited.
A press release from Smith county stated, “A maximum capacity of 35 people will be allowed in the Smith County Commissioners Courtroom, with public seating available for 20 people. Seats available are marked with blue tape. … The first 20 members of the public will be allowed in the courtroom for the meeting. Doors will open at 9:15 a.m. and the meeting begins at 9:30 a.m.”
In other business, run-off elections were pushed back to July 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the court announced that the last day to register to vote is June 15.
Courthouse replacement plans
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county will not be moving forward as planned with a bond vote for a new courthouse on the downtown Tyler square, however the county did move forward with the purchase of three properties in the area. The properties are on the east side of the square, which was identified as the best potential location after a series of meetings.
Moran decided not to move forward with the bond election this year due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
"If the court approves the proposal the court will gain substantial way to obtain property in a consensual manner ... it would cost seven or eight times more to buy the properties in the future," said Moran as he presented the proposal.
The court approved the purchase of the property at 210 E. Erwin St. for $175,000, a building at 101 N. Spring Ave. for $275,000 and the third property at 107 N. Spring Ave. for $725,000.
Commissioner Precinct 3 Terry Phillips said the purchases would create a foundation of space for a new courthouse that could be built without disrupting downtown businesses.
"It's a good investment," Phillips said.