CALDWELL COUNTY, Texas - There was a fight for public access to the courts in Caldwell County.
This month, the Texas Fair Defense Project filed a lawsuit against Caldwell County, saying their clients were denied access to magistrate court proceedings.
Texas Fair Defense Project managing attorney Camilla Hsu joined FOX 7 Austin's Mike Warren to discuss.
Mike Warren: Just some quick background here. What is a magistration proceeding, and what led up to this lawsuit?
Camilla Hsu: So a magistration proceeding is, most of the time, people's first appearance after they get arrested, their first appearance before a judge. And at this proceeding the magistrates are deciding what bail amounts will be, or if people will be released on a personal bond, and what conditions there might be if somebody is released. And so, what led up to this lawsuit is that, right now in Caldwell County, bail setting hearings are being held out of public view. And by holding these hearings in the dark, Caldwell County is taking away the rights of loved ones, of community members and of the press to attend and see these really important hearings that decide whether somebody is going to spend the coming days, weeks or months of their lives locked up while they're presumed innocent and are waiting to fight their case. And so we brought this case with our co-counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute to make sure that people can see what's happening in the courts that their tax dollars are paying for.
Mike Warren: In your argument to the judge for this case, what constitutional arguments are you going to make?
Camilla Hsu: So we're making a First Amendment argument. The First Amendment guarantees the public and the press the right to attend these magistrates and hearings. And we're also making an argument based on the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. That's really what makes sure that you can actually take advantage of your First Amendment rights. And so in this case, it means that Caldwell County can only take away people's access to see these hearings if it does so in as limited a way as possible when there are no other options, when it's doing so for the right reasons, and it's spelling out its reasons for why it's closing a hearing. It also means that Caldwell County needs to give notice before it's going to do that. It needs to listen to what people have to say about whether they think that the hearing should be closed or not. And right now, Caldwell County is not doing any of those things. It has just closed all of these hearings to everyone.
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Mike Warren: I mean, critics are going to say that press access can actually affect the outcome of some of these proceedings. What's your reply to that?
Camilla Hsu: Well press access and public access. They do affect the outcomes of proceedings. They affect them by improving accountability and transparency. And that's why that First Amendment right exists to improve the quality of the decision-making in our courts and to improve everyone's confidence in and what's happening in the courts. You know, we should not be taking people's freedom away in these bail setting hearings in secret. And, you know, like I just said about the steps that Caldwell County can take if it wants to close any individual hearing; if there is an extraordinary reason to do so, then it can go through those steps and show that it's necessary. But it is not doing that right now. And that's why we've had to bring this lawsuit.