Texplainer: What is a Court of Inquiry?

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Hey, Texplainer: What is a court of inquiry and when is it used? 

When Texas district judges have probable cause to believe state laws have been broken, they may ask the district’s presiding administrative judge to appoint another district judge to commence a court of inquiry, which reviews the evidence and could issue an opinion reaffirming or disapproving an earlier opinion. The court of inquiry, which was established in 1876, can be called to review a past case or any other criminal matter brought to the district judge. 

Courts of inquiry are unique to Texas, although the U.S. military uses a legal proceeding by the same name to investigate its internal affairs. 

Although the law would allow a district judge to request an inquiry in any instance where state laws may have been broken, Texas judges have in recent years used this obscure and once seldom-used provision to investigate possible wrongful convictions. Courts of inquiry have also been used to investigate a prostitution ring and reports of bribery in a county probate court

So why request a court of inquiry instead of going to the police or taking a more typical route through the legal system? The reasons vary from case to case, but individuals could seek courts of inquiry because they believe there is corruption or potential conflicts of interest in the legal or law enforcement institutions they would otherwise turn to. Courts of inquiry can also review evidence that would not be admitted to other courts, such as hearsay. 

Courts of inquiry have a controversial history in Texas. In a 1962 court of inquiry, the individuals who initially brought the case were not allowed to consult with their lawyers during proceedings, defend themselves, cross-examine or confront witnesses that accused them, call witnesses on their behalf or rebut the prosecution’s evidence. As a result, the Texas Legislature amended the law in 1965 to ensure that all witnesses are entitled to the same protections as those in felony prosecutions, and to allow only district judges to request courts of inquiry. Critics argue that courts of inquiry violate the Fifth Amendment right to trial by jury, but based on the Supreme Court decision in Hurtado v. California, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals holds that courts of inquiry are not unconstitutional because under the 14th Amendment, state courts are not required to initiate criminal prosecutions by grand jury indictment. 

Importantly, courts of inquiry do not have the power to sentence those whom they investigate. If the judge in a court of inquiry finds there is reason to believe a crime was committed, the case is referred to a higher court for prosecution. 

After DNA testing led to the 2011 exoneration of Michael Morton, an Austin man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in 1987, Morton’s lawyers requested a court of inquiry to determine whether his former prosecutor, Williamson County Judge Ken Anderson, deliberately withheld evidence that could have acquitted Morton 25 years earlier. During Morton’s trial, Judge William S. Lott ordered Anderson to provide the court with police reports he had gathered on the case. When Morton’s case file was unsealed in August 2011, his lawyers discovered that key documents were missing from the record, which they believe should have been turned over and could have altered the verdict. 

If the court of inquiry finds probable cause to believe that Anderson committed criminal misconduct, the case would probably be referred to a prosecutor’s office and heard by a grand jury in district court, said former Travis County District Judge Charlie Baird, who has presided over courts of inquiry. But it’s not clear what the outcome would be if Anderson were found guilty of withholding evidence. 

Baird, who is also currently a Democratic candidate for Travis County district attorney, said the result could hinge on how the statute of limitations is defined. Anderson’s lawyers have argued that even if a violation were committed, the statute of limitations on the alleged crime expired years ago, three years after Morton’s trial. But if Morton’s 25 years of wrongful imprisonment are considered an ongoing crime for which Anderson is responsible, then it’s possible he could be charged with a third-degree felony and receive up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. If Anderson is found guilty but it is determined that the statute of limitations has expired, he could still be disbarred as a lawyer, Baird said.

In 2009, a court of inquiry posthumously exonerated Timothy Cole, a man who died in prison a decade earlier while serving a rape sentence. DNA tests revealed that another man, Jerry Johnson, who is in prison, committed the rape in 1985. 

A court of inquiry was requested in 2010 to examine whether Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongly convicted and executed for setting a 1991 fire in Corsicana that killed his three daughters. The inquiry was discontinued after an Austin appellate court ruled that the former Judge Baird, who presided over the inquiry, abused his discretion when he did not recuse himself from considering a motion that challenged his authority to conduct the inquiry. The motion was brought by Navarro County prosecutor R. Lowell Thompson, who asked Baird to recuse himself from the case based on his prior history as a judge. Baird voted to reaffirm Willingham’s death sentence when he served on the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1995, and presided over the court of inquiry that found Timothy Cole not guilty. The Willingham case is currently pending in the 299th District Court. It has yet to be reset on the docket. 

Bottom Line: Courts of inquiry are unique to Texas, and in recent years, they’ve primarily been used in attempts to resolve issues related to wrongful convictions. 

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