PoliticsWaco court takes hearings to MCC for real-world lesson

Waco court takes hearings to MCC for real-world lesson


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Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals took its show on the road Monday, hearing oral arguments before an audience in the MCC conference center rather than the quiet confines of the fourth floor of the McLennan County Courthouse.

The event at McLennan Community College, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Sept. 17, 1787, signing of the U.S. Constitution, was intended to bring the regional intermediate appellate court to the attention of more students and other members of the public than the court’s typical operations.

Justice Steven Smith answers a question from the audience after the 10th Court of Appeals hearings held Monday at MCC.

“It’s good for us to get out and hold hearings closer to the people, so they can see what we do. … Especially young people, they need to understand the how the system works,” Justice Steven Smith said Monday.

Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Smith to the 10th Court of Appeals in 2021, after previously serving 22 years as judge of Brazos County’s 361st State District Court.

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After two hearings, Smith and the other justices told the students what appeals courts do and how their role differs from the role of trial courts.

Chief Justice Tom Gray, who practiced public accounting in Houston from 1980 to 1983 before going to law school at Baylor University and becoming a lawyer and a judge, noted appellate court proceedings do not include testimony of witnesses and presentation of evidence. Gov. Rick Perry appointed Gray to the court in 2003 and his most recent reelection to a 6-year term came in 2018.

“If you were looking forward to a dramatic cross-examination of a witness, you’ll be disappointed by today’s oral arguments,” Gray said in his opening remarks before the hearings started.

Appeals courts deal with the record from the trial court, said Justice Matt Johnson, who was born and raised in Waco and served as judge of Waco’s 54th State District Court for 14 years before his election as an associate justice of the 10th Court.

“We don’t get to add new facts,” Johnson said. “The proof to the correct legal standard happens at the trial court.”

In criminal courts the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty. In civil court the burden of proof generally is a bit lower, being preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not. Texas appellate courts take any appeal properly filed that has merit, while the state’s highest courts, the Texas Supreme Court for civil matters and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal matters, choose the cases they take.

What the appeals courts do is examine trial record to look for errors, Gray said.

In U.S. and Texas courts, there are rules about what kind of evidence may be presented at trial and how the evidence may be obtained.

“One example of an error might be hearsay evidence,” Gray said.

When a witness presents hearsay for one side, the other attorney will usually offer an objection. Then the judge hears arguments from both sides on why the hearsay should or should not be allowed into evidence.

“If we find an error, we then have to determine whether that error affected the trial court’s judgement,” Gray said of the appellate court’s process.

If the error did affect the trial verdict, the appeals court can reverse the trial court’s judgment or verdict. Gray said the 10th Court has heard about 300 criminal and civil appeals each year since the pandemic and estimated the court overturns about 15% of the cases it hears.

Sometimes, when an appeals court reverses a lower court’s judgement, people may refer to that reversal as being on a technicality, Smith said.

“If the state is going to take away liberty, they must do it by the rules,” Smith said of prosecutors and trial courts sending offenders to prison. “If they don’t do it by the rules, they don’t get to do it. It’s not technicalities. It’s rights inherent in our Constitution.”



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