‘Where can I hold court after a disaster?’

Stephanie Wawrzynski

TDCAA Research Attorney in Austin

Following a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, many courthouses are temporarily unusable. If another space within the county seat is available, the commissioners court may designate any building in the county seat for use as a court.1 In situations where there is no viable space within the county seat, the Government Code has special provisions for coastal counties that allow court proceedings to be held outside the county seat.  
    All three statutes (one each for district courts, constitutional county courts, and statutory county courts) have the same two requirements.2 First you must be in a “first tier coastal county” or “second tier coastal county.”3 Here is a full list of them.

First-tier coastal counties4

Aransas
Brazoria
Calhoun
Cameron
Chambers
Galveston
Jefferson
Kennedy
Kleberg
Matagorda
Nueces
Refugio
San Patricio
Willacy
 
Second-tier coastal counties5
Bee
Brooks
Fort Bend
Goliad
Hardin
Harris
Hidalgo
Jackson
Jim Wells
Liberty
Live Oak
Orange
Victoria
Wharton

    Second, a disaster that precludes the court from conducting proceedings in the county seat must occur. The definition for disaster is expansive, and it includes “the occurrence or imminent threat of widespread or severe damage, injury, or loss of life or property resulting from any natural or man-made cause, including fire, flood, earthquake, wind, storm, wave action … or other public calamity requiring emergency action.”6 If both of these requirements are met, the presiding judge of the administrative judicial region may designate an alternate location for court proceedings anywhere within the judicial district with consent of the appropriate judge for that court.
    Finally, the Supreme Court of Texas and the Court of Criminal Appeals can authorize modifications and suspensions of court procedures following a disaster.7 On August 28, 2017, the Courts issued a joint order authorizing all courts in Texas to consider disaster-caused delays as good cause for modifying or suspending all deadlines and procedures in any case.8 The order expired September 27, 2017, but may be extended by the Courts.

Endnotes

1  Tex. Local Gov’t Code §292.001.

2  Tex. Gov’t Code §§24.033, 25.0019, 26.009.

3  Id.

4  Tex. Ins. Code §2210.003(4).

5  Tex. Ins. Code §2210.003(11).

6  Tex. Gov’t Code §418.004(1).

7  Tex. Gov’t Code 22.0035(b).

8  Supreme Court Misc. Dkt. No. 17-9091; Court of Crim. App. Misc. Dkt. No. 17-010.