Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Will video kill our access to the courts?

The "open courts provision" of the Texas Constitution guarantees people in Texas access to the courts.
All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him, in his lands, goods, person, or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law. - Texas Constitution, Art. 1 Sec. 13
In most courthouses in Texas, those who are accused of committing criminal acts are still brought before a judge in open court to enter their pleas. There is one exception, however.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor offense in Galveston County and you cannot post bond, your first court appearance will be on the misdemeanor jail docket at the Galveston County Jail. Every afternoon a fresh group of inmates are brought into a large room where they wait for their court-appointed attorneys to talk to them about their cases. In most instances a plea is negotiated -- but this is where the similarities end.

For the inmates on the misdemeanor jail docket are brought before a judge in a courtroom. The judge takes the plea from his chambers while the inmates stand before a video monitor in the county jail. A two-way camera, microphones and speakers connect everyone. Keep in mind, we're not talking about arraigning folks who were just arrested before a magistrate on a video monitor (which is not at all uncommon). We are talking about the actual disposition of a criminal case.

Is it really that big a deal, though? It is far more convenient to be able to sit down and talk to a client at the jail rather than squeezing through the benches in the courthouse. But is Galveston County violating their right to have their plea heard in open court? Do the inmates care?

I don't know. I understand why it's done like that on the island and there are some advantages - for both inmates and attorneys - in doing it this way. But I wonder if the practice is slowly eroding our access to the courthouse. Is the camel sticking his nose under the tent?

No comments: