Proposal would require top courts to broadcast arguments

A Texas lawmaker has proposed asking voters to decide whether the state’s highest appeals courts should have to record and post online video of its proceedings, a move that would bring the Lone Star State up to speed with 30 U.S. states.

On Tuesday, a committee will hear the proposal from Democratic Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg.

Canales says his Republican peers may support a recording requirement in the name of transparency. But he’s less certain that they’ll appropriate the cash that Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals would need to record proceedings. The Supreme Court of Texas has broadcast arguments online for years.

The amendment, which would require voter approval, would “allow the people of Texas to decide if transparency in our high courts is important,” said Canales, a civil and criminal lawyer, in a recent interview.

The Office of Court Administration has estimated it would cost the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals about $300,000 initially and $48,000 annually to implement broadcasting. The chambers, located on the Capitol grounds, would need a new sound system, better lighting and cameras, said David Slayton, the office’s executive director.

“We could obviously do it for cheaper,” Slayton said. “But if the court is mandated to do it, we feel like there is an obligation for it to be funded.”

Most states only have one top appeals court that handles both civil and criminal cases, but in Texas, the highest courts are operated — and funded — separately.

The Supreme Court has webcast arguments since 2007, but the Court of Criminal Appeals — which rules on appeals including those from inmates on death row —doesn’t.

Only eight U.S. states do not broadcast either audio or video of their arguments, according to Canales’ office.

In 2005, then-Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson asked the Legislature to pay for webcasting but the state refused. Two years later, St. Mary’s University School of Law paid to start the system and funded it until 2012, when it could no longer afford to.

Since then, the State Bar of Texas has footed the bill, at about $60,000 a year, according to spokesman Lowell Brown. Between 30 and 60 people watch the monthly broadcasts, but as many as 500 viewers have tuned into online arguments for high-profile cases.

The online arguments come in handy for law school professors and students but also benefit Texans, said Reynaldo Valencia, the associate dean for administration and finance for St. Mary’s University School of Law.

“The more that the public has in terms of operations at the highest courts of Texas, the better the system is,” he said.

In fiscal year 2014, the top civil court’s budget was $5.8 million and justices issued 115 opinions. The top criminal court’s budget was $5.5 million and justices issued 457 opinions.


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