The Texas judiciary is bracing for the potential spread of coronavirus across the Lone Star State.
If infected patients refuse to self-quarantine, there’s a legal process to force them into isolation, but it involves courts, judges and hearings.
In the past 24 hours, top judicial leaders ordered each judicial region presiding judge in Texas to appoint two on-call district judges in their region who can hold hearings at any time or day on the involuntary quarantine of coronavirus patients who refuse to self-quarantine, said David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration.
Slayton added that his office has sent district judges across Texas a primer on Texas quarantine laws, and also distributed advice about how judges and court staff themselves can avoid getting the virus.
Judges don’t anticipate they’ll hold many involuntary quarantine hearings.
Slayton said there have not yet been any case of coronavirus patients refusing to quarantine themselves, so the courts have not had to turn to the involuntary quarantine procedure.
But Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said he wants the state’s judiciary to be ready for any challenge the new coronavirus might present. The judiciary is therefore preparing for hypothetical scenarios.
“One of them is to review cases where someone who is subject to being quarantined refuses, and there is state law that governs that. … We want to make sure we have judges throughout the state who know the law backward and forward, and are ready at a moment’s notice,” Hecht said. “This can come up in the middle of the night, on weekends, times when courts aren’t usually open, and judges may not be available, so this is a system to make sure we can cover those hearings no matter what.”
The hearing may result from patients refusing medial orders.
Slayton explained that local or state health authorities legally could issue control orders to isolate or quarantine people infected with transmittable diseases, such as the new coronavirus.
Courts only get involved if an infected patient refuses to self-quarantine, Slayton said. In that situation, a county attorney, district attorney or the Texas Office of the Attorney General will seek an emergency ex-parte court order from a district judge to force the patient into quarantine. The next day, the court must hold a full due-process hearing to continue the person’s quarantine.
Slayton said that Hecht plans to issue an order that will allow all of the on-call judges to utilize statewide jurisdiction to hear involuntary quarantine cases coming from anywhere in Texas. They’ll be on call even at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, he noted.
Presiding Judge Ray Wheless of the First Administrative Judicial Region, which includes Dallas County, said he appointed his region’s two judges yesterday.
One of them is Dallas County’s 14th Civil District Judge Eric Moyé, who said he was preparing yesterday and today for his role in the process.
Hecht added that the judges might use the telephone for the first hearing, which is an emergency ex-parte hearing, at which the patient is probably not represented by an attorney. But a patient will be able to have a lawyer at the full due process hearing the next business day. They will take precautions to ensure coronavirus doesn’t spread further at these hearings, he added.
He said even though the state must be prepared, that he is not expecting very many involuntary quarantine hearings to be held, since they will only be necessary when patients refuse to self-quarantine.
“This is an effort by medical professionals to make sure that your family and your contacts and friends are protected, and you don’t have to worry yourself, about giving the disease to a loved one,” Hecht said. “People may not know the best ways to keep from passing the disease along, and this is just a way to try to help people know that they and their loved ones are safe.”