Chief Justice Hecht, Judge Kocurek to push for more courthouse security

Outside of a hearing at the Texas Capitol on judicial salaries, Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, spoke to me about a problem plaguing Texas judges: fear.

He said that judges who took a recent Office of Court Administration survey “overwhelmingly” reported that they fear personal harm because of decisions made on the bench.

Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek

The November shooting of Travis County Judge Julie Kocurek prompted the survey, to which 43 percent of the state’s judges responded, according to OCA spokesman David Slayton.

About 38 percent of the respondents “indicated feeling afraid for their personal safety at work in the past two years,” Slayton said.

During the survey period – from Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 – 10 percent of respondents experienced that fear at least four times, and 7.4 percent “reported feeling afraid for their safety every day.” Almost 40 percent of judges who reported feeling afraid blamed their fear on a written or verbal threat.

About 43 percent of the judges who responded feared for their safety away from work in the past five years, Slayton said, with 10 percent reporting that occurrence at least four times during the survey week and 4 percent reporting being afraid outside of work every day.

To address this fear, Hecht said he plans to push the 85th legislature to better secure courthouses and “ask for more personal security for judges in their homes,” he said.

Joining him at the Capitol will be Kocurek, Travis County’s presiding felony judge, who was shot in November outside of her home. She was released from the hospital on Christmas Day and has yet to return to work, a family spokesman said. Even so, Hecht said, Kocurek told him in a meeting Wednesday that she wanted to be a part of Hecht’s efforts.

“She’s gone through literally hell, and her family has gone through hell,” Hecht said. “She’s going to carry all of this with her the rest of her life, but she’s very strong.”

Hecht said Kocurek, who’s served on the bench for 17 years, could easily retire now.

“She told me that she was determined not to,” Hecht said during the Thursday hearing, “because she didn’t want anybody to think that you could drive a judge from a bench by threatening lives.”

* the OCA report findings will be released in a few weeks, spokesman David Slayton said. 

A plain ol’ accidental discharge in Plano

Hooray for transparency!

A recent peek into the officer-involved shootings that Texas departments have reported to the state attorney general’s office revealed a peculiar one from Plano.

Under a new state law, departments are directed to file the reports within 30 days of an incident. So far, departments have filed 12 reports from nine incidents (two involved multiple officers), and all were filed within 30 days.  (I’m attempting to keep up with the reports in this database. If you’re into that sort of thing, check out the Washington Post’s database of killings by police in the U.S.)

Anyway, this one report from Plano said the Sept. 3 shooting occurred during an “accidental discharge ricochet during range actives” at the Plano Police Department’s shooting range.

Still curious, I called Plano PIO David Tilley, who said an officer accidentally fired a shot into the ground during the department’s annual inservice. A piece of the bullet ricocheted off the ground and grazed another officer’s elbow.

There’s an internal investigation per department protocol, but Tilley said neither officer missed any work over it. It’s unknown, though, if the officer passed his qualifications.

Texas judge expunges truancy records in accordance with new law

With a click of the mouse, Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell expunged 2,208 records for people who’ve wound up with truancy-related criminal charges over the past 20 years, giving them “another shot of life,” he said.

Terra Tucker, policy analyst for Sen. John Whittier, and Judge Bill Gravell expunge criminal truancy records in Williamson County.
Terra Tucker, policy analyst for Sen. John Whitmire, and Judge Bill Gravell expunge criminal truancy records on his courtroom computer in Williamson County.

When Texas lawmakers discussed several bills to decriminalize truancy during the 84th legislative session, they heard often from Gravell, who initially opposed changes to the 1995 law. Gravell’s program was plenty successful, he would say, indicating he didn’t need the state’s help in keeping kids in school.

The bill, HB 2398, eventually passed and became law, making truancy a civil matter. On Thursday, as he sat before a table covered with baskets of the records-to-be-destroyed, he called the new law the “best piece of legislation possible.”

A bailiff walks near baskets of records that Judge Bill Gravell ordered to be destroyed in accordance with a new truancy law.
A bailiff walks near baskets of records that Judge Bill Gravell ordered to be destroyed in accordance with a new truancy law.

Previously, students who racked up 10 unexcused absences in six months could have faced a Class C misdemeanor. In 2014, nearly 100,000 students fell in that category. The new law – effective Tuesday – directs courts to expunge those charges.

Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler, who worked with Gravell and others to craft the bill, said her organization is watching how courts address the expunction portion of the law and praised Gravell’s actions.

“We’re pleased to see that some of the most vocal opponents have really come around,” she said. 

Fowler called the mass release from criminal convictions “unprecedented,” noting about 100,000 students were criminally charged each year for the past 10 years.

In addition to the expunctions, Gravell cleared three outstanding truancy cases, dismissed 100 outstanding truancy warrants, lifted suspensions on driver’s licenses for 87 students and waived collections for 16 people who owed the county fees.