Op-Ed by Judge Craig Smith – 192nd District Court, Dallas County
At the beginning of the year when COVID-19 was still a news headline and not a reality here, none of us could have imagined the story that would play out in our daily lives, in our schools, in our places of business, in our government, and in our justice system. In my case, it touched my life directly.
At first, we saw a few cases on the West Coast.
Then they came to Texas. We all asked ourselves, how bad will this be? I know many local leaders here took the situation seriously, notably Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. We were working with unknowns. Was this a very dangerous disease? How fast would it spread? How should we react? I’m a big Mavericks fan, and actually officiated at Dirk Nowitzki’s wedding. By the time the NBA season was suspended, I think many people had that “what’s happening” moment and finally realized this was a big and potentially life-changing situation.
By the middle of March, many of us began to understand a few things. We needed to shut things down, at least for a while. We needed more support for testing and medical care, and for those on the front lines at our hospitals. We needed a vaccine, and therapeutic drugs. Next came the economy. What would the impact be? All of this has happened like a domino effect, one change creating another, one disruption to our system threatening another important component of our daily life.
All around me, I saw parents with kids in school worried about their children. A temporary shutdown in short order led to closing down schools for the rest of the year. I heard stories from my campaign manager, whose wife is a public school principal, about how challenging it was to switch from in-person to virtual learning, including helping so many families who do not own computers, or do not have internet access, or who rely on schools for meals. It’s shocking how this pandemic so quickly revealed the many challenges we face when we cannot engage face-to-face, despite all of our technical prowess. This pandemic exposed how ill-prepared or unwilling some of our leaders were to handle such a crisis.
Where else has the domino fallen?
The jury trial system, an absolutely fundamental part of our justice system, is right now almost completely suspended. You have a constitutional right to a trial by jury, but right now it’s essentially not possible because of the impact of COVID-19 on public health. Here in Dallas County, we’ve had to postpone all jury trials until the fall at the earliest. Bexar County will be the first to try a virtual trial by jury, and some jury trials have proceeded in Texas counties that have not reported any COVID-19 cases.
Here in Dallas County, we are able to conduct video-conference hearings and bench trials. Some cases have gone to mediation instead of relying on the courts. Although it has been discussed, the concept of a “virtual” jury trial is unprecedented, and frankly controversial. Some attorneys have already voiced concern about whether voire dire – the process of interviewing and selecting members of a jury – can even be done effectively without it happening in person. Others have questioned the integrity of jury sequestration if jurors are engaging in a trial remotely rather than in the traditional way, together at the courthouse. In effect, COVID-19 has brought a major wheel in our justice system nearly to a standstill.
All of these issues weighed on me as we moved through the spring.
The inconsistency we saw among national, state and local governments was disconcerting. Some counties were locked down. Some were not. Some businesses were locked down. Some were not. Frustration was frequently my response.
My family and I took every precaution, but even I contracted COVID-19. We had a small private event following my daughter’s wedding in February. My wife and I caught the virus from other guests at that event who had been exposed. My symptoms and hers ended up being relatively mild, but it brought home to me that this disease can touch anyone. I am certainly aware of how lucky I am, as I have read so many news reports of those who have become gravely ill or died. One of the longest-serving Democratic precinct chairs in Dallas County died of COVID-19 in his home, alone. This is a tragic situation, and a devastating disease that we have to take seriously. Each of us has to do our best to help in what ways we can. I became a plasma donor when I tested positive for antibodies in June, and I am completely recovered, other than a reduced sense of taste and smell that remains.
The politicization of the pandemic has not served us well.
Science, facts and an overriding concern for public health should have guided us all along the way, since late in 2019. This has not been the case across the board, with some notable and noble exceptions. I think this pandemic has taught us a few things about ourselves and our country. On the downside, we need to improve. We need a stronger social safety net and leadership that is prepared and responsive. On the upside, we have shown resilience and adaptability. Issues of social justice have come to the foreground during this “pause” in our normal national life. Ironically, our community has shown strength even in an era of social distancing. I know we will pull out of this eventually and be stronger for it if we take the time to look at ourselves and learn the lessons of this epic challenge.
Judge Craig Smith
Judge and Democratic Candidate
Judge Smith was first elected to the bench in 2006. He is currently serving his fourth term presiding over the 192nd Civil District Court in Dallas County. He is running for the Fifth District Court of Appeals, one of the most important appellate courts in the state, with jurisdiction over six North Texas counties.