Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Judges Joining Together

As I mentioned last July, Chief Justice Jefferson and I are active in our respective national associations. Personally I have always found there to be great value,and comfort, in connecting with people who do what you do, but in other states. The National Center for State Courts supports our groups (which are limited to chiefs and state court administrators) but also a number of other groups that may be of interest to judges in Texas. See the whole list on their website, and the one I wanted to single out today, because they have a brand new website, is the American Judges Association. They also publish Court Review, a very useful magazine; for example, the current issue has an article on how to have an effective commission to address racial and ethnic bias in the courts. Another group that I have been very impressed with, which is not supported by NCSC, is the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges; El Paso District Judge Patricia Macias is the current President, and I know several other Texas judges who are very active with them, including our Jurist in Residence, John Specia, and District Judge Darlene Byrne, here in Travis County.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kids in Court

I notice that Senator Whitmire has a Criminal Justice committee hearing scheduled for May 13, partly to discuss their interim charge #10 on "facilitating the fair and accurate courtroom testimony of children and reducing the trauma associated with testifying, particularly for children who are victims of sexual abuse." But my current interest in children in court is more on the civil side, meaning child abuse and neglect or "CPS" cases, and is animated by the Beyond the Bench conference for Houston that I recently described. There I learned of a widespread consensus in Houston against bringing children to court in CPS cases; in fact the Family Division of the District Courts has a local rule stating:

"3.5 Interview of Child / Child's Testimony. In all cases in which the court deems testimony of a child to be necessary or required by statute, the attorney wishing to have the child interviewed shall arrange a specific time through the court coordinator for the court to interview the child. No party is to bring a child to the courthouse to testify without prior arrangement pursuant to this rule, unless the child's attendance is required by court order including a writ of habeas corpus or attachment. The attorney or pro se party who is responsible for the child's attendance at court shall immediately notify the court coordinator of the child's presence in the courthouse. The child shall not be brought into the courtroom without the express consent of the judge or associate judge."

Contrast that consenus with the Texas Family Code, §263.302: “The child shall attend each permanency hearing unless the court specifically excuses the child’s attendance.” And §263.501(f) (placement review hearings) states: “The court shall consult with the child in a developmentally appropriate manner regarding the child’s permanency or transition plan, if the child is four years of age or older.”

In an article in the Texas CASA newsletter, Judge Karin Bonicoro discusses why she believes the Family Code makes the appropriate call on this issue, in spite of the difficulties of bringing children to court:

"Both the court and the child benefit from the child’s participation. As a judge, I have found that the child’s attendance and voice add an indispensable component to the hearings and my decision making process. When I am able to observe the child, I get a sense of that child’s condition and abilities (physical, intellectual, social, verbal). I sometimes see the effects of the psychotropic medications the child is prescribed, something I would miss entirely if the child was absent. In some instances this has led to orders for an independent medication review, resulting in changes in, or discontinuation of, the child’s psychotropic medications. In talking to the child, I learn their wishes regarding permanency, and their plans upon leaving care. I may learn about a previously unidentified relative or kinship placement option. The child can tell me in her own words how she feels she is doing in her placement or in school, or why she has engaged in a particular behavior. She may request services or other accommodations she thinks might benefit her. A child may request information on the location or well-being of a sibling in care, or request the opportunity to communicate with specific family members. When a youth informs me he plans to return to a particular person when he leaves care, I have the opportunity to try to have that person located and, if appropriate, included in the transition planning for the youth."

One thing that will help the children and judges in Houston is construction of a new, much more suitable courthouse for these cases, making it much more feasible and less stressful for the children to come to court. Apparently bonds have been approved by the voters, but not issued by the commissioners court.

Monday, April 26, 2010


I used to have someone who worked for me who said "MeMeMe" in the subject line of her e-mails requesting time off; it always brought a smile to my face. But enough about anonymous her, let's talk about me.

The occasion? Five years ago yesterday was my official first day in this job. For the record and otherwise, it has been wonderful. I owe Chief Justice Jefferson and the Supreme Court of Texas a huge debt for bringing me into the world of courts. I have an awesome staff, fascinating and meaningful work, and great contacts with others in Texas and around the nation. So thanks to all with whom and for whom I work, I appreciate you!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Next Generation

International organizations, seeking to bring stability and economic prosperity to the developing world, constantly emphasize the importance of the rule of law. Societies where disputes are resolved according to an orderly framework of law, administered by neutral and professional officials, are safer and more prosperous, pure and simple. More on this idea and its promotion at websites like the United States Institute of Peace, the International Law Institute, and the World Justice Project (which is sponsoring a Rule of Law conference for the Middle East and North Africa in June).

Closer to home, American judges and court professionals share a deep-seated reverence for the value of the rule of law, and frankly a deep-seated fear that their reverence may not transcend the generations. But much effort goes to preserving and extending this value, and we hope that American teachers utilize high-quality resources available to teach the next generation about civics and our constitutional order. For example, the National Center for State Courts provides a graphic novel series called Justice Case Files to help educate the public about how the courts work and to remind them of the critical role courts play in a democratic society. Another terrific teaching tool is the "Justice by the People" curriculum offered by the American Board of Trial Advocates, a group devoted to preserving the right to a civil jury trial.

In Texas, ABOTA and the State Bar of Texas Law-Related Education Department, along with the Texas Bar Foundation, the Western Judicial District of Texas, and Law Focused Education, Inc., launched a pilot program in 2009 called the Teachers Law School. Teachers learned Texas criminal and civil law procedures, and participated in discussions designed to prepare them to return to their classrooms well-equipped to provide an introduction to the world of law. Texas civics teachers will also want to visit the wealth of resources available for Law Focused Education and Law Related Education.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Beyond the Bench

Last week I had the privilege of attending most of a "Beyond the Bench" conference sponsored by the Supreme Court's Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families, my first but by no means the first one conducted by the Texas Center for the Judiciary. These conferences bring together all of the people and all of the disciplines involved in conducting child abuse and neglect cases in a particular locale, in this case Harris County (Houston). The format is to watch a video that depicts the evolution of a single "CPS" case, pausing at intervals to deconstruct what has happened and, with skilled moderators, query a multidisciplinary panel about what they saw and how it would play out in their locale. So, the panel had representation from the judiciary, prosecution, law enforcement, CPS, child advocacy, counsel for the parents and children, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, housing, workforce, education, and the parents and child. This itself was extraordinary. But the format continues with breakout sessions where each judge has assembled a multidisciplinary team of people who work in their courtroom, to troubleshoot the process and look for opportunities to improve the way the system works.

In Harris County, twelve elected judges and twelve more associate judges handle CPS cases. (Some also handle juvenile justice cases while other also handle family law cases, so this diffusion between so many judges, with many different modes of practice, is one of the issues for them to consider.) Not all those judges were present, but many were, along with an amazing cross-section of the resources and talent in the third largest city in the country. The synergy and energy that I witnessed, and the willingness to take a look at local practices and improve them, were inspiring and hopefully a harbinger of great things to come. I hope so for the children of Harris County, but also for the sake of Texas. Our foster care system is 60% funded by the federal government, and they grade us every few years by looking, in part, at Harris County as the largest jurisdction in the state, in the process known as the Child and Family Services Review or "CFSR." Texas-specific information on the CFSR is available on the CPS website, including the 2009 Final Report.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Court Records Task Force

As I mentioned on February 8, recently the Supreme Court commissioned a new task force dedicated to the preservation of court records. Their work has begun in earnest and I must say it is fascinating to witness.

These are records that have been generally underappreciated and in some instances, ignored, for over 150 years. These archives include documents pertaining to the Republic of Texas; slavery; the Civil War; Reconstruction; early conflicts between ranchers and farmers; the early days of the railroads and the energy industry, and numerous documents involving famous Texans from Sam Houston to Leon Jaworski. Some of these records are being stolen and put on ebay. Others are crumbling or being eaten by pests.

For example, a task force member reports that he found in the Harris County court archives a deposition on written questions of Charlotte Allen from 1870, when she was very old. Her money was used to purchase the land that became the City of Houston, and she was the first woman to live in Houston (and she was the one who named the town "Houston"). The deposition centered on her recollections of the early property ownership of the City, and how the Allen Brothers (one of whom was her husband) sold off their land rights.

Soon the task force will send out a survey to the court clerks around the state, as a major part of information gathering on the current state of affairs. They are also working to engage university students to write papers based on court case records from different counties, illustrating the rich history that is available from these records.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Office of Capital Writs

SB 1091 established the Office of Capital Writs to provide legal representation for indigent capital murder defendants who are sentenced to death. The bill also created a Capital Writs Committee appointed by the State Bar of Texas president to recommend candidates for director of the capital writs office. The director is then to be appointed by the Court of Criminal Appeals. The first two implementation milestones below have been met and the Capital Writs Committee has issued a job posting, available on Texas Courts Online.

On or before January 1, 2010: The presiding judges of the administrative judicial regions shall complete and administer the statewide list of competent counsel available for appointment to represent defendants in applications for writs of habeas corpus.

On or before January 15, 2010: The president of the State Bar of Texas shall appoint the members of the capital writs committee.

On or before May 15, 2010: The capital writs committee shall submit to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals the list of candidates for the position of the director of the office of capital writs.

On or before September 1, 2010: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals shall appoint the director of the office of capital writs.

The funding for the office of capital writs begins in FY2011 and was included in the Office of Court Administration’s portion of the state budget. Our staff has met to begin planning the startup of the office, including finding office space to house the expected staff of 9.5 FTEs when it is fully implemented. We are also beginning to look at how to submit a Legislative Appropriations Request in August of this year, on behalf of an office that will not yet exist at that time.