394th Judicial District Court becomes digitized

A courthouse in a West Texas county known for wide-open spaces and dry desert landscapes has just become fully digitized.

On Jan. 17, the 394th Judicial District Court in Brewster County unveiled new technological additions, which included several digital inputs and computer monitors at the bench, lawyers’ tables, and jury box. This technology will be used to display evidence from one computer, the Internet, and even cell phones on screens throughout the courtroom. “Eliminating the voluminous paper exhibits increases courtroom efficiency, reduces overhead and man-hours in the district clerk’s office (which is tasked with storing trial exhibits), and decreases legal fees and expenses paid by litigants,” Judge Roy Ferguson told the Alpine Daily Planet. “Legal research can be performed and presented live in the courtroom.”

While some courts in the state have implemented similar technology, it is less common in rural areas such as Brewster County, which is the largest county in Texas land-wise but home to just one city—Alpine. Still, a digital transition is taking place in many locations throughout the state, partly made more useful by the recent Texas Supreme Court e-filing mandate. In fact, Ferguson told the Daily Planet that the e-filing mandate saved the district enough money to completely pay for the courthouse’s digital update.

According to Ferguson, the next steps in digitizing all five courtrooms in the district likely will include video-conferencing for remote witness appearances and remote live Spanish/English interpretation. For more on the 394th District Court’s digitalization, as well as photos of the courtroom’s new electronic equipment, go to the Alpine Daily Planet at http://alpinedailyplanet.typepad.com/alpine-daily-planet/2014/01/394th-judicial-district-court-now-fully-wired-modernized.html.

Cameron County Commissioners Court accepts donation of restored minutes

On August 15, the Cameron County Commissioners Court accepted the donation of the restored minutes of the District Court of Cameron County from 1885 through 1891. The book was restored due to the generosity of Judge Migdalia Lopez of the 197th District Court and her husband, Nemecio Lopez. Among the cases memorialized in the books were the proceedings of King v. Cavazos, a court ruling that led to the development of the King Ranch.

From left: Judge Mark Davidson, a member of the Texas Bar Historical Foundation; Aurora de la Garza, Cameron County District Clerk, Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos, Judge Migdalia Lopez, and Nemecio Lopez.

Current, future civics teachers stage mock arguments at Texas Supreme Court

Current and future civics teachers from across the state got a chance to hold mock oral arguments Wednesday at the Texas Supreme Court.

About 30 teachers and education students from various Texas universities participated in the arguments as part of the Hatton W. Sumners Student Teacher Institute, part of the Institutes on the Founding Documents

In the past, the training program has included a visit with state Supreme Court justices, but this was the first year participants staged mock oral arguments, said Jan Miller, who directs the State Bar of Texas Law-Related Education Department. The program is designed to inspire social studies and government teachers to use hands-on teaching methods, rather than just rely on textbooks, Miller said.

Supreme Court clerks organized the oral arguments section of the two-day program. The mock case involved a lawsuit over whether an eatery could open inside a shopping mall if another restaurant already held a contract as the mall’s exclusive sandwich shop.

“The project came from me watching students go through this room and have no idea what’s going on,” court clerk Andrew Wynans said, referring to the school classes and other groups that regularly tour the court.

Even many adults don’t understand that Texas has two high courts—the Supreme Court, which handles civil cases, and the Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles criminal cases, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson told the educators.

Jefferson said he agrees with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cites a lack of civics education among the country’s biggest problems. 

“I think we should be doing everything we can to make sure our students know what America is really all about and how it works and how it came to be and what the deficiencies are as well,” Jefferson said. “And I think your interest in this subject matter will help educate them better than they would have been without this project.”

Pictured above: Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson addresses a group of about 30 current and future civics teachers from across the state Wednesday in Austin. Below: Educators participate in mock oral arguments organized by Texas Supreme Court clerks.


PBS Profiles Harris County Veterans' Court

PBS Need to Know logoThe Harris County Veterans' Court is being profiled this Friday evening on the national PBS series "Need to Know." The show will look at how veterans' courts are being set up to help veterans suffering from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries who end up in the criminal justice system. KUHT in Houston is airing it at 8:30 p.m. For your local affiliate and broadcast time, visit PBS.org.