Journalists and legal professionals converged on Friday, Sept. 12, at the Hilton in downtown Austin to discuss public access to courts, social media use in open government, and new laws and best practices involving the Texas Public Information Act, as part of the 2014 Bernard and Audre Rapoport State Conference. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas sponsored the event.

The opening panel—moderated by Tom Williams, partner at Haynes and Boone and FOIFT vice president—included Elisabeth Earle, Travis County Court At Law judge; Joe Shannon, Tarrant County district attorney; and Joel White, First Amendment attorney and FOIFT board member and provided a lively conversation on “Rights, Roadblocks and the Public’s Access to the Courts.”


Addressing the crowd—which included representatives from The Texas Tribune, the Victoria Advocate,Texas Lawyer, the New York Times, and the City of Austin—the legal panelists shared some of their experiences working with journalists in the courtroom and offered insight into issues including media and crowd interactions with jurors, the role of public information officers in courts, and the ways the Internet and social media resources are affecting the legal process.

The panelists also discussed Rule 12 of the Rules of Judicial Administration, which governs the disclosure requirements of judicial records, and open access to courts. Often, the panelists seemed to agree, judges misunderstand the allowances of information requests or courtroom access. And, as noted by audience members, the ways public requests are carried out vary from location to location. That confusion is something many are hoping to mend.

“A court is either open or closed,” Shannon said. “You don’t close part of it.”

Later in the day, during a luncheon with Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson serving as keynote speaker, State Bar of Texas President Trey Apffel and Rudy England, chair of the State Bar of Texas Public Affairs Committee, presented 2014 Texas Gavel Awards to select journalists who have demonstrated excellence in legal reporting and fostered a public understanding of the legal system.

The winners are listed below by award category, along with short descriptions of their entries.

  • Print, Major Metro: Brantley Hargrove, Dallas Observer, is the winner for “Burning Injustice,” a story about a woman’s fight to clear her name after a disputed murder conviction and the state’s efforts to deal with arson convictions involving “junk science.”
  • Print, Non-Metro: Michelle Villarreal Leschper, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, is the winner for “Death of Innocence,” a story about difficulties surrounding the release of information to the public and media in crimes involving juveniles and gag orders.
  • Broadcast, Major Metro: Lynn Boswell, KLRU-TV and Villita Media, is the winner for “Admissions on Trial: Seven Decades of Race and Higher Education,” an in-depth look at how colleges and universities decide which students to admit and reject and the courts’ role in answering whether race has a place in the decision.
  • Broadcast, Non-Metro: Joe Augustine (reporter) and Mario Sandoval (photographer/editor), KRGV-TV, are winners for “Trapped,” which highlights delays in immigration courts and the effects of the government’s decision to reprioritize cases.
  • Online: Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune, is the winner for “Trouble in Mind,” a six-part series examining the intersections of the Texas mental health and criminal justice systems and the developing jurisprudence around brain science.

The winning stories and author bios are available here.