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Op-Ed

Red and blue access

April 6, 2022

Public access does not depend on political colors. Texas proves that.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

I grew up in a family of moderate Democrats.

My grandfather and grandmother on my father’s side were both ordained Christian preachers and my grandmother on my mom’s side, when I visited her, worked in a ball bearing factory across the narrow, cobblestone street in Paris where she lived in a third floor, walk-up flat.

So my dad once told me that he had asked his dad, “Who owns the railroad?”

And my grandfather thought that was the best and most important question his son could have asked. Because in his view the privately owned railroads were taking notorious advantage of the local farmers who were in his congregation and who had no choice.

The Republicans were the party of the owners.

But in our legal battles with court bureaucrats around the country, I have learned that the defense of the First Amendment does not correlate with political spots and stripes. Across the nation, we see some of the worst press access in state court in Dallas, for example.

When we started out there in the early 2000’s, I met the clerk, Jim Hamlin. He made enough of an impression those many years ago that I can still see him, in a plain, long-sleeved shirt, coming to greet me from his office that opened onto the main lobby of the clerk’s office. Very much a man of the people, Hamlin was available to anybody who walked in and had some problem filing their papers. He would help them out.

He showed me around behind the counter and introduced me to his second in command, Virginia, a black woman who continued to help us long after Hamlin retired. From that time forward and for as long as Hamlin was the clerk, we saw the new paper cases when they crossed the counter in state court in Dallas.

Hamlin was a Republican.

And then I also traveled to Houston where the state court clerk was Charles Bacarisse. He likewise was welcoming and not long afterwards our reporter was allowed behind the counter where he could see and report on the new cases as they were filed.

Bacarisse was also a Republican.

But the way of it in Houston was that political winds blew like a local hurricane, and swept all local officeholders out of office in 2008. Bacarisse was knocked out along with every Republican on the local ticket in the election that brought Obama into the White House and Loren Jackson into the Houston clerk’s office. Jackson promptly kicked journalists out from behind the counter and directed them to his website where he sold court records long after they were filed.

Jackson was a Democrat.

And the federal judge who enjoined his new policy was appointed by George Bush Sr.

(Art by Carlos Ayala/Courthouse News)

A similar lesson came out of our Virginia litigation. Our local counsel explained to me before our trial that our judge was a Republican appointee, and in Virginia, Republicans were the reformers. A Democratic machine had run Virginia politics for decades, and the local court clerks had long been at the machine’s front line of power.

Those Virginia clerks have as a group energetically opposed a return of traditional timely access to journalists. And even though two of them in Norfolk and Prince William lost a First Amendment case brought by Courthouse News, and the state had to pay us $2.4 million in fees as a result — still the clerk in the court next door to Norfolk continues to withhold access for a week after filing.

The obduracy of the state clerks runs deep.

So back in Texas, we are having such trouble now in Dallas that access to just docket information is regularly delayed three days beyond filing, and even after docketing, about half the new cases are held back for another two days to a week.

It is the nuttiest thing, but what is happening is that when a filing lawyer uses auto-redact software to search for and eliminate any private identifiers, the clerk sees that as a red flag requiring that the filing be again redacted by a court employee, which takes up to a week.

The attitude is not new in Dallas. The former clerk, Gary Fitzsimmons, was elected in 2006. As one of his first acts in office, he kicked our reporter out from behind the counter.

So I asked our Dallas reporter to remind me on the party affiliation for the last three clerks in Dallas.

“Hamlin was the guy who was welcoming and was helpful, the older gentleman with the glasses. Yes, Republican. Fitzsimmons is the guy who threw me out from behind the counter. Fitzsimmons was a Democrat. Current clerk is Felicia Pitre, also a Democrat.”

And then over in Austin we are currently proceeding in federal court against the clerk who is withholding about half the new complaints for three days or more, well past the time the news has turned stale.

The Austin clerk, Velva Price, is also a Democrat.

So I’m a Democrat. But do I really want Texas to roll blue?

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