Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Courthouse Square

This Christmas, as a well-known map freak, I received a cool book by Frank Jacobs, called Strange Maps. (The link is to his blog, not the book.)  One of the many interesting pages has a map of the various counties in Texas, with the key showing the typology of the courthouse square in each county. Apparently many courthouse squares follow the "Shelbyville" model of how the buildings and roads are arranged around the square, showing the influence of Tennesseans in particular.  I wish I could give you a link to the map, but it is not available online as far as I can tell. It does appear that the map was borrowed from a scholarly text on The Courthouse Square in Texas (Veselka, UT Press), a journal article description of which is excerpted here:
Texas is indeed unique as the only state to retain its public lands on entering the union. This fostered state land policies which encouraged land ownership and the formation of counties and county seats, which once selected led, in turn, to construction of courthouses to house local government. This was facilitated by Anglo-American town plans that were prevalent in Texas and designed specifically to accommodate courthouses. The author examines and analyzes the several types of the courthouse squares derived from Anglo-American planning traditions (Shelbyville, Lancaster, Harrisonburg, and Four-, Two-, and Six-Block Squares), as well as their origins. These square types occur in about three-fourths of Texas' counties. In addition, he examines the remaining one-fourth of Texas town plans that had their origin in Hispanic or other planning traditions (Plaza, Railroad-Influenced, Half- and Quarter-Block, and Irregular Block Squares). These latter types had to be modified to allow location of a courthouse.

In perhaps the most important chapter, Veselka discusses the significant centripetal role of the courthouse square in attracting business activities and public and ceremonial events important to the community. . . .
As I have previously noted, the movement toward e-everything, as described in one of the better COSCA "white papers" (this one from 2005), challenges the centrality of the county courthouse as a place where people still must come together to do their legal business and resolve their disputes.
Technology has also changed the scope of the judiciary’s responsibility to preserve the American tradition of open courts. Now, thanks to the World Wide Web, courts have the opportunity to enhance the public’s ability to meaningfully observe and participate in the judicial process. In this modern age, citizens have the option of going to the courthouse to access court records or documents, or visiting a virtual courthouse where information is available at the click of a mouse. Parties can participate in virtual hearings and meetings, retrieve court records, track the progress of their cases, complete and file complaints and other court documents online, obtain legal information if they are unrepresented, and pay fees and fines via credit card - all without having to leave their homes or businesses.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Equal Justice Under the Law

This plaque hangs outside the courtroom and clerk's office of the Supreme Court of Texas. As I have written about previously, some remarkable work on racial disproportionality in the child welfare part of our justice system is underway in the Texas health and human services world. Since I last wrote, the Health and Human Services Commission has elevated work that was going on specifically in the child welfare area, to embrace the entire enterprise, with the creation of the Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities. One of my goals is to bring that work, which has a growing contingent of child welfare judges on board, into the criminal justice conversation. On January 13 the Judicial Advisory Council to TDCJ-Community Justice Assistance Division will hear a presentation by Joyce James, who is the director of the new Center and the driving force behind this courageous work in Texas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

2010 Annual Report

This week our amazing judicial information staff completed and posted online the Annual Report for which the Judicial Council and OCA are probably most known. It is the single best source of information on Texas courts, "IMHO." Just one interesting fact in the report, last year only 3 percent of capital convictions resulted in the death penalty, down from a high of 24 percent in 1992.
Check it out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Courts Respond to Domestic Violence

Today was the conclusion of the National Leadership Summit on State Court Responses to Domestic Violence, where 38 states sent teams to build collaboration so that courts can do a better job for those they are charged to protect. I feel very good about the plans we have made for Texas, but wanted to share highlights from the address by Professor Sarah Buel, formerly of UT Law School and a hero of the domestic violence movement. She outlined nine simple steps that courts can take to improve conditions for victims of violence:
1. Provide a safe waiting area. One example, Judge Denton in Travis County gave up most of his own office space so a safe area could be created.
2. Provide signage and informational brochures in the waiting area. Examples are available at www.instituteforsafefamilies.org. Safety plan information should be provided with every victim contact; see www.abanet.org/domviol.
3. Train designated DV clerks and court staff.
4. Provide a pre-court briefing for victims and accused batterers so they will know what to expect in the hearing. Travis County uses volunteers for Project Options, and UT has a survivor support network, see www.utexas.edu/ors/dvssn.
5. Seat victim and accused on opposite sides of the courtroom to prevent witness tampering (an area of particular emphasis for Professor Buel).
6. Let the victim leave court 30 minutes before the batterer.
7. Use volunteers for everything - to help the clerks, help probation staff, monitor halls (to watch out for tampering), provide the pre-court briefing, keep brochures supplied, etc.
8. Have court staff participate in a local domestic violence task force.
9. Support a court culture that prioritizes model practices.