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'How Is This Already Not The Law?' Bill Requiring Family Court Recording Dies

Nisarg Khatri
The state Capitol in Austin.

A bill aimed at shedding a little more light on family court proceedings ended up in the dustbin of legislative history when it failed to get a needed vote on the Texas House floor on Thursday.

HB 3785 was a relatively simple bill. It would require family court proceedings overseen by associate judges to be recorded, either by a court reporter or by a high-quality digital recorder. The bill’s sponsor, Southlake Republican Rep. Giovanni Capriglione said it was a matter of transparency. He was floored when he realized there are court proceedings without an official record.

“The reaction I get from everyone is, ‘how is this not already the law?’” Capriglione said.

Associate judges work under district judges, who are elected. While the law requires proceedings overseen by district court judges to be recorded by a court reporter. In associate judges’ courts, there’s no recording requirement, though most jurisdictions provide a court reporter or make a digital recording anyway. Dallas and Tarrant Counties are the outliers that don’t.

Jennifer Olson from the Protective Parents Coalition is a frequent critic of the Tarrant County family court system. For years, she’s organized regular people to sit in on family court proceedings because she thinks judicial abuse is rampant in the system, especially in associate courts where there is no official record.

She thinks judges would behave differently if they knew they were being recorded. She said a record is useful to lodge a formal complaint about a judge’s behavior.

“We see a big difference when we’re sitting in the room, but we can’t be there all the time,” Olson said. “Requiring a recording of some kind would maybe help start to fix the issues that we’re seeing.”

Judge William Harris, who presides of the 233rd District Court in Fort Worth, says associate judges are professionals who would act no differently whether they’re being recorded or not. He said the bill wouldn’t do much to change the way things work.

He said there’s no need for a record in an associate judge’s court because litigants who are unhappy with the outcome there can appeal to the district judge, who will automatically grant a new hearing that disregards the associate judge’s decision.

“I think it’s an awfully inconvenient and expensive solution for a problem that perhaps only exists in the mind of some people,” Harris said.

The bill passed out of committee unanimously. The only group that opposed the bill, the Texas Family Law Foundation, rescinded its opposition after it was amended. But that wasn’t enough to get it over the next hurdle.

The bill is one of hundreds that are kicking the bucket before the session ends May 29. 

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.