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Reading is difficult. As a writer, I help the reader every way I can think of. As a reader, I work hard not to miss the big things in the middle of the road.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Guilty Plea Has to Be Taken at the Real Courthouse

Congratulations to my friend Roger Donley, primary spirit behind this vindication of a defendant's right to a public trial. I used to be the prison public defender that served that county, so I am familiar with the judge, the prosecutor and the prison-chapel courtroom in the case. I found out that this decision had come down from the prestigious national blawg (law blog) the Volokh Conspiracy. Way to go, Roger, and way to go Judges Hervey, Price, Womack, Johnson, Keasler, Cochran, and Alcala. Full disclosure: Roger let me review the brief just before he sent it in, but by the time I got it, it was too late to make any substantive changes to it, and. of course, given that it was written by Roger, it was plenty good enough. I was deeply honored that he was willing to let me to give it the once over.
What did the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals do? It did not allow a trial to be held in a prison chapel, a place where it was damned difficult for the public to get in, where prison officials could pretty much keep any member of the public out that they did not want in, and where children and people recently released from the prison couldn't get in at all. The defendant moved the trial court to have his trial at the county seat of Jones County: Anson. The trial court refused, and the defendant pleaded guilty, subject to his pretrial motions. The Eleventh Court of Appeals in Eastland affirmed, basically holding that since it could not categorically say that more than a handful of members of the public were formally barred from the prison-chapel courtroom, that the chapel courtroom was public enough. The defendant had also argued that the chapel courtroom violated the federal and state religious freedom guarantees, an argument that the Eastlanders had no truck with, and which the CCA, in the end, did not take up.
CCA Presiding Judge Sharon Keller concurred, apparently without opinion. CCA Judge Larry Meyers dissented without opinion.
I think that the windy desolation of the West Texas grassland where the French Robertson Unit is is majestic. The old-fashioned stone-and-iron Jones County courthouse is picturesque. The trial judge, Brooks H. Hagler, is a charming, pleasant man, who does not, as many trial judges do, treat defense counsel with loathing. The great challenge of his job is that he and Jones County do not really have the taxbase to pay all the costs that running a justice system entails when a county has a prison in it. The county is too small and too poor. The people who thought of the prison-chapel courtroom were thrilled that they could take care of the prison's criminal caseload without having to pay for the prisoners who pleaded guilty to be transported to and from Anson. But trials have to be open to the public, even for guilty pleas, so that is is highly unlikely that any Court of Star Chamber could be set up in Abilene.

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