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Journalists Seek Access to Texas County's Bail Hearings

The Texas Tribune accused Caldwell County, Tex., officials of violating the First Amendment by holding bail hearings behind closed doors. The lawsuit asserts that the county is violating the press and public's First and Fourteenth Amendment right to access court proceedings, Courthouse News reports. Other plaintiffs include the Caldwell/Hays Examiner, a local nonprofit news publisher, and Mano Amiga, an immigration and criminal justice advocacy group in the county. The 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, news groups and advocacy organizations have made several pleas to open up access to bail proceedings. County magistrates have refused to grant access, either denying or ignoring 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.

Camilla Hsu is the managing attorney of litigation for the Texas Fair Defense Project, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. Hsu, representing Mano Amiga and the Caldwell/Hays Examiner, said that keeping 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." Citing the Fourteenth Amendment, the plaintiffs 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 plaintiffs 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.


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