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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

The Texas Tribune sues for access to county bail hearings

The Texas-based news group says closing bail hearings to the press and public harms its constitutional rights to access criminal proceedings.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news outlet based in Austin, accused Caldwell County officials of violating the First Amendment by holding bail hearings behind closed doors.

The 15-page federal lawsuit filed Thursday asserts that the county, located southeast of Austin, has violated the press and public's First and Fourteenth Amendment right to access magistration. 

In addition to the Tribune, plaintiffs in the suit include the Caldwell/Hays Examiner, a local nonprofit news publisher, and Mano Amiga, an immigration and criminal justice advocacy group that operates in the county.

Named as defendants are Caldwell County, county sheriff Mike Lane, Court at Law Judge Trey Hicks and the county's four justices of the peace.

Over the past two years, the news groups and advocacy organizations have made several pleas to open up access to bail proceedings. County magistrates have thus far refused to grant access, either denying or ignoring their requests.

By closing bail hearings, the lawsuit says, one of the most important stages of a criminal case is being decided without observation from the community. 

“These hearings are of great significance not only because they determine whether the presumptively innocent will be incarcerated pending trial, but also because pretrial incarceration exerts great pressure on defendants to plead guilty,” the complaint says. 

Camilla Hsu is the managing attorney of litigation for the Texas Fair Defense Project, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. Hsu, who is representing Mano Amiga and the Caldwell/Hays Examiner, said in an interview that keeping these proceedings secret harms the community.

“Everyone benefits from the kind of transparency and accountability that you get when people can see what is happening in their courts,” Hsu said. “It has been long understood that accountability and transparency also improve the quality of decisionmaking in the courts and improve everyone's confidence in what we are paying for in our courts."

Alongside the Texas Fair Defense Project, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University brought the case against Caldwell County and is also acting as counsel for the plaintiffs.

In their First Amendment claim, the plaintiffs argue that by not allowing press access to magistration, officials have harmed their right to access the courtroom. 

The U.S. Supreme Court took on the constitutional right to access criminal trials in a 1980 decision, Richmond Newspapers Inc. v. Virginia.

In his opinion Chief Justice Warren E. Burger held that Virginia's decision to close a murder trial to the press and public was a violation of the First Amendment. While the court held that the right to access is not absolute, closing criminal proceedings "limits the stock of information from which members of the public may draw.”

Together, The Texas Tribune, Caldwell/Hays Exaimner and Mano Amiga lean on this idea of the right to access as something they are being deprived of in Caldwell County.

Recalling the Fourteenth Amendment, the plaintiffs also say the county’s decision to close the proceedings was made without proper notice or an opportunity for their concerns to be heard, effectively stripping them of their right to due process.

The Texas Tribune and other organizations involved in the suit are asking the court to require the county to rescind its policy and give members of the press and public access to the judicial proceedings. If the county seeks to restrict access, the plaintiffs have also requested that they adhere to procedural requirements such as providing notice and an opportunity to hear objections to the closure.

Courthouse News reached out to several Caldwell County officials, who either did not respond or declined to comment on the lawsuit or the county's policies.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts, Law

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