Denton County Justice of the Peace Joe Holland says his court is always open to the public despite recent concerns from local defense attorneys.
Holland, who is currently running for a fourth term, presides over Precinct 1, which includes southeastern Denton, Corinth, Shady Shores and Lake Dallas. He is running against Denton police Sgt. Danny Fletcher in the March 6 Republican primary.
"The reason I decided to run is that I believe there is an efficiency issue with that court, and I believe the court proceedings aren't open and transparent," Fletcher said.
Holland said he was discussing "embarrassing" personal information with a defendant when he tried to kick local attorney Rick Hagen out of a public criminal proceeding in his courtroom on Dec. 20. Public access to judicial proceedings is guaranteed in the First and Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and it's outlined in Chapter 1 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
Hagen, who's practiced law in Denton for 24 years, said this was the first time he had been in Holland's court in the Joseph A. Carroll Building at 401 W. Hickory St. It was also the first time he's been asked to leave a criminal proceeding in a public courtroom, he said.
"As a lawyer, I am highly offended," he said. "I am pissed off."
Holland said he asked Hagen to leave because he was going over a defendant's inability to pay fines and other court costs.
"We were talking about matters that I felt like were very sensitive and embarrassing, and Mr. Hagen came in and I simply asked him if he would excuse us," Holland said, adding that he was "trying to afford [the defendant] some dignity."
Hagen said he was the only attorney in the court at the time, and he declined to leave. Two other Denton attorneys, George Roland and Kyle Knapp, said lawyers who practice in Holland's courtroom are typically asked to wait in the hallway until their name is called. Holland said he's unaware of his bailiffs asking anyone to wait in the hallway.
"The courtroom is a public place and I know that better than anyone," said Holland, who is not an attorney. "If attorneys have been denied access to the courtroom, I'm not aware of it."
Hagen said he went to Holland's court on Dec. 20 for his client's case related to a driver's license dispute. In recounting his experience, Hagen said roughly half a dozen lawyers were waiting in the hallway when he arrived. And when he tried to enter the court to wait for his client's case, a bailiff stopped him.
"The bailiff is there and he sees me reach for the door, and he says 'You can't go in,'" Hagen said. "I asked, 'Is this a juvenile case?' And I don't think he heard me, but he said yes. I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't hear me. So I don't go in."
Juvenile proceedings are one of the few exemptions to public trial requirements, but Holland said he doesn't recall hearing any juvenile cases on Dec. 20.
Hagen went on to explain that he walked into the courtroom when the bailiff walked away from the door. During the ongoing criminal proceeding, a court clerk pointed toward the door, gesturing for Hagen to leave, he said.
Then he caught Holland's eye.
"Holland says, 'Excuse me, you need to leave and points at me,'" Hagen said. "I'm pissed and I say 'Your Honor, isn't this a public courtroom?' And he said, 'Yes it is, but we're talking about private matters. You need to leave.'"
But Hagen stayed in the courtroom anyway.
Hagen said he hasn't lodged an official complaint against Holland to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the agency responsible for investigating and disciplining judges. He simply wanted to bring this issue to the public's attention, he said.
After his exchange with Holland, Hagen poked his head out in the hallway to tell the other attorneys waiting for the docket that the courtroom was open.
Criminal defense attorney George Roland went back inside with Hagen.
"There were probably ten other lawyers on the docket, but I was the only one sitting in the courtroom that day [in addition to Hagen]," Roland said.
Roland has been practicing in Denton County for about four years. He said no other judge has ever asked attorneys to sign in and then wait in the hallway to be called.
Denton criminal defense attorney Kyle Knapp was also sitting in the hallway during the Dec. 20 dispute. He said he's been to Holland's court two to three times a month for several years, and he's used to waiting.
"[The bailiffs] have sign-in sheet, and they call people up one a time," he said. "I've never fought it because it's not a problem for me. Because generally, if I'm there, I'd rather sit outside with my client."
Justices of the peace, like other judges, must allow the public into their courtrooms to watch the proceedings, according to Austin-based defense attorney Gerry Morris, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The First Amendment guarantees the public's access to trials, while the Sixth Amendment protects a defendant's right to a public trial.
They are basic and well-established rights, he said.
"The purpose of that right is the public's confidence that the rules and procedures will be fairly administered," Morris said. "If it's done behind close doors, there's no checks and balances. This is something that's evolved from English common law and was adopted in the U.S Constitution."
Morris said he's been practicing for 40 years and seen some "fatally unfair" procedures develop in various JP courts.
"When things happen in secret, there's no way to hold anyone accountable," he said. "And regardless of the level of the court, serious damage can be done to individual rights. And as the old adage goes, the best disinfectant is sunlight."
JULIAN GILL can be reached 940-566-6882.
Staff writer Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe contributed to this report.