AUSTIN, TX—The Texas Tribune, the Caldwell/Hays Examiner, and Mano Amiga filed a lawsuit today challenging Caldwell County’s policy of holding all bail-setting proceedings behind closed doors. Represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the news outlets and criminal justice advocacy organization allege that categorically closing such proceedings to the public violates the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment protects the right of the public and press to observe judicial proceedings, including bail-setting hearings in Caldwell County,” said Scott Wilkens, senior counsel at the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Public access ensures that criminal-court proceedings are conducted fairly and fosters public understanding of and respect for the judicial process. As we say in our complaint, Caldwell County must end its practice of holding these hearings behind closed doors.” 

The complaint explains that Caldwell County’s five magistrates have adopted a policy of closing all bail-setting hearings—also known as magistration—to the press and the public, and that the county sheriff has enforced this policy by denying access to all observers. Magistrates do not provide notice or an opportunity to object prior to closing magistration proceedings. According to the complaint, the First Amendment permits a hearing or trial in a specific case to be closed, but only if the trial court first makes detailed, on-the-record findings justifying closure. 

“Texans have a fundamental right to know what goes on inside courtrooms. Magistration hearings are an important step in the criminal justice process, and there is no reason the public and the press should be routinely barred from these proceedings,” said Sewell Chan, the Texas Tribune’s editor-in-chief. “The Texas Tribune is proud to be part of this effort to protect the public’s right to know.”

To ensure that Texans are empowered with the civic information they need to fully participate in democracy, the Texas Tribune reports on a broad range of legal issues relating to the criminal justice system, including county bail setting practices and statewide bail reform efforts. For similar reasons, the Caldwell/Hays Examiner reports on local criminal legal issues, including excessive bail amounts, which keep defendants behind bars while awaiting trial. Mano Amiga’s advocacy work requires access to magistration to educate the public on the importance of local courts and to effectively administer its bail fund to help get people out of jail. 

“Access to magistration ensures people who are arrested are treated fairly and their ability to pay is taken into account in setting bail,” said Eric Martinez, executive director of Mano Amiga. “Even a few days in jail can lead to loss of jobs, vehicles, and housing—consequences that devastate families and communities of the accused and underscore the importance of their right to attend magistration.”

Read today’s complaint here.

The Knight Institute’s Wilkens and Evan Welber Falcón represent all three plaintiffs in the case and Camilla Hsu, for the Texas Fair Defense Project, represents the Caldwell/Hays Examiner and Mano Amiga.

For more information, contact: Adriana Lamirande, [email protected].