Lawyers tired of standing in long lines to pass through metal detectors to enter county courthouses around Texas can take heart.
On Sept. 28, the State Bar of Texas unanimously approved President-Elect Randy Sorrels’ proposal to appoint a task force to consider the development and implementation of a statewide courthouse security access badge that would enable lawyers to bypass security lines to gain entry to courthouses. The board considered the proposal after it was recommended by the State Bar executive committee in a special called meeting.
Sorrels said the idea behind a badge program is to make it more efficient for lawyers to enter courthouses throughout the state by completing a background check and paying a minimum fee.
“I want people to do a risk-benefit analysis,” Sorrels said in an interview.
Sorrels noted that several counties, including Harris, Fort Bend and Jefferson, have created programs that allow attorneys to pay a fee and annually pass a background check to obtain a security badge. Travis County has an access badge program for one of its courthouses, he said.
According to the website for the Harris County Frequent Courthouse Visitors Program, the official name of the county’s access badge program, participants pay a $75 fee. Carl Shaw, assistant chief Harris County constable for Precinct 5, said the fee is due annually.
The access badge is good only in Harris County. Sorrels said having a number of different access programs could become expensive for lawyers who practice in multiple counties.
Andrew Tolchin, a Houston attorney-mediator and former member of the bar board, said he suggested the idea for a statewide access badge.
Tolchin said there has never been an instance that he has found in which an active attorney fired a gun in a courthouse in Texas. George Lott, an attorney who had lost his son in a child custody case, did shoot to death a prosecutor and a civil trial attorney and wounded two judges and another prosecutor in the Tarrant County Courthouse in 1992. Lott was a party in the case and was not an actively licensed attorney at the time.
The Sept. 28 meeting marked the second time the executive committee had Sorrels’ proposal to create a courthouse access badge task force on its agenda. State Bar President Joe Longley blocked the committee from voting on the proposal at a Sept. 13 meeting. Longley said the bar president must recommend the creation of a task force before the executive committee can take such action.
“I find there is not enough information yet to comply with the duties the executive committee has,” he told the committee Sept. 13.
Longley said the proposal, as originally made, conflicted with the State Bar Act. No fiscal note had been done to determine how creating the task force would impact the State Bar budget, names of task force members had not been provided and a determination had not been made as to whether an existing bar committee could do the study, he said.
Sorrels challenged Longley’s ruling, arguing that there is no requirement that the president recommend a proposed task force. According to Sorrels’ reading of the State Bar Act and Bar Policy Manual, the executive committee is required to approve a task force if the bar president recommends it. The “reading that Joe takes makes him king,” Sorrels said.
Longley said in an interview he only wanted to make sure the executive committee complied with the State Bar Act.
A recommendation by Trey Apffel, the bar’s executive director, to delay action on the proposal until it could be tightened up defused the tense situation.
The revised proposal that the executive committee considered Sept. 28 included the names of the task force members and a fiscal note estimating the cost for it at $20,000.
Beaumont attorney Christy Amuny and Granbury attorney Cindy Tisdale are co-chairs of the task force. Task force members include representatives of groups interested in the courthouse access issue.
Tolchin said he believes creating a statewide program would require action by the Texas Legislature, which convenes for its regular session in January 2019. It’s likely to take a year and a half or more to get a program approved and up and running, he said.
The proposal could face opposition from some local authorities.
In the Panhandle, Randall County Sheriff Joel Richardson said the district judges on the county’s courthouse security committee want everyone entering the courthouse, except employees, to go through the metal detectors. Before Randall County had security checks, defense lawyers took guns into the courthouse, he said.
“It looks like a local issue to me,” Richardson said.
Another Panhandle official, Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas, said he does not object to setting up a statewide security badge program. He said that visitors to the Potter County Courthouse must stand in line outside, even in inclement weather.
“I’m not opposed to doing something statewide,” Thomas said.