News Orgs Sue Caldwell County Over Secret Criminal Proceedings

Bail-setting hearings ought to be public, they say

The Caldwell County Courthouse in Lockhart (Photo by Aleksomber / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Texas Tribune is joining social justice group Mano Amiga and the Caldwell/Hays Examiner in suing Caldwell County (county seat: Lockhart) for refusing to allow members of the press to observe the bail-setting proceeding known as “magistration.”

Magistration is the process in which newly arrested suspects appear for the first time before judges, known as magistrates, who formally determine their charges and bail conditions. It is generally considered an accused person’s most important appearance before a judge, outside of an actual trial. (And in Texas, many counties including Travis County don’t allow for defense attorneys at these appearances, as we reported last week.)

“Caldwell County’s five Magistrates have adopted a policy of categorically closing all magistration proceedings to the press and public, and the County Sheriff has enforced this blanket closure policy by denying access to all would-be observers,” the lawsuit states. “The closure of these critically important hearings violates the First Amendment right of access of the press and public, as well as their Fourteenth Amendment right to notice and an opportunity to be heard.”

The lawsuit argues that opening up magistration to the public will promote the fairness and integrity of the judicial process. Eric Martinez, policy director at Mano Amiga, said the public needs access to the process, given its importance in the lives of people accused of crimes. “Even a few days in jail can lead to loss of jobs, vehicles, and housing,” Martinez said. “These are consequences that devastate families and communities of the accused, which underscores the importance of their right to attend magistration.”

Jordan Buckley of the Caldwell/Hays Examiner (who has freelanced for the Chronicle) stressed that keeping judicial proceedings open is necessary if people are to trust their government. “A blanket ban on public access to courtrooms isn’t good for anyone,” Buckley said. “It erodes public trust in the judicial system when we cannot see what our tax dollars are paying for.”

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