Texas Attorney General
County Attorney Escamilla Wants to
Close the Courtroom, Seal Records
‘The Austin Bulldog’ intervenes to oppose
this unusual action to deny public access
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2017
Part 7 in a Series
Posted Friday February 25, 2017 12:21am
Updated Tuesday February 28, 2017 5:02pm to clarify Escamilla's statements (see underlined text)
To keep a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) from being obtained by a victim of domestic violence — and ensure that it isn’t widely disseminated — Travis County Attorney David Escamilla has taken the extraordinary step of requesting that a hearing be held in a closed courtroom and that the related exhibits, motions, and responses to be argued in court be sealed because they might make reference to the DPA.
The Austin Bulldog filed a petition February 21, 2016, to intervene and oppose the County Attorney’s petition.
Courts are rarely closed, except in some family law cases involving child custody. Honoring this principle provides transparency and accountability. It avoids courts being thought of pejoratively as a Star Chamber, the ancient English tribunal “established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts would likely hesitate to convict them of their crimes.”
If the County Attorney’s petition is granted it would deny public access to courts, which is a cornerstone of our system of justice that is grounded in Texas law and the First Amendment, although this right is not absolute. Courts are sometimes closed to prevent dissemination of sensitive information to the public, such as matters dealing with attorney-client privilege, trade secrets, and matters of national security.
The Austin Bulldog’s motion states that the County Attorney’s petition to seal records fails to articulate — or to provide any evidence at all — of any “specific, serious and substantial interest which clearly outweighs” the presumption of openness of court records.
Attorney Bill Aleshire represents the Bulldog in this matter, citing in the motion Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 76a(3), which allows non-parties who pay a filing fee to intervene as a matter of right for the limited purpose or participating in proceedings.
“Trust in any governmental activity is enhanced with transparency,” said Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and before that tax assessor-collector. “And that trust is diminished with secrecy. Why should any deals a prosecutor makes with any defendant be concealed from the public? Is secrecy about prosecutor deals really in the public interest? In this day of enhanced concerns about equal justice (e.g., Black Lives Matter) does secrecy about who gets what deal from a prosecutor enhance or diminish trust and respect for the criminal justice system?”
A hearing on the matter was originally scheduled for February 22. The hearing was rescheduled for March 8 after the County Attorney learned through The Austin Bulldog’s motion and Aleshire’s e-mails to him that the county had failed to comply with the requirement to post notice with the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Texas.