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Federal judge orders Caldwell County to hold bail hearings in public

By Nina Banks, The Texas Tribune

Federal judge orders Caldwell County to hold bail hearings in public” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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A federal judge has ordered Caldwell County to hold public bail hearings in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of officials there allowing only people arrested and on-duty magistrates to attend such proceedings.

The Texas Tribune, the Caldwell/Hays Examiner and advocacy organization Mano Amiga filed the suit last year, claiming Caldwell County has violated their “First Amendment right of access to judicial proceedings and Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process.”

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and in a preliminary injunction ordered defendant Caldwell County to open bail hearings, or magistrations, by March 4.

Magistrations in Caldwell County are held over video conference and no counsel, family or press are permitted to attend. Additionally, press are not notified prior to when the hearing will take place or those whose bail is being determined.

Pitman acknowledged that the Supreme Court, citing cases such as Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, has allowed access to criminal trials and pretrial proceedings on the basis of the First Amendment. He noted that magistrations should not be closed “due to their growing importance and great significance to the accused, the victim, and the community.”

He also recognized the “Plaintiffs’ likely constitutional deprivation is causing irreparable harm” and hindering “their ability to pursue their organizational goals.” The Tribune editor in chief Sewell Chan explained that “[a]ccess to criminal proceedings, including magistration, is fundamental to The Texas Tribune’s mission of ensuring that every Texan is empowered with the civic information they need to become full participants in our democracy.”

Mano Amiga and the Caldwell/Hay Examiner described similar grievances. The Caldwell/Hays Examiner echoed The Tribune’s worries, stating that being blocked from attending bail hearings “impedes the Examiner’s reporting on newsworthy cases or issues that intersect with its beat in the Caldwell County criminal legal system.”

Eric Martinez, executive and policy director of Mano Amiga, said it impeded the organization’s ability to carry out its work, such as “bailing people out of jail expeditiously, gathering information to advocate for arrestees and victims of crime, supporting community members from populations that are overrepresented in the criminal legal system, and educating the public on the importance of local courts.”

Caldwell County tried to have the lawsuit dismissed. In a motion, Pitman wrote county officials “unconvincingly argue that Plaintiffs have failed to establish their right to access magistrations and the right to receive notice and have an opportunity to be heard if a magistration is to be closed” on account that “magistrations are not ‘hearings’ or ‘criminal proceedings.’”

County Judge Hoppy Haden and Sheriff Mike Lane did not respond to comment on Tuesday.

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