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Ramirez v. Wells

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

March 27, 2018

ENRIQUE RAMIREZ, Appellant
v.
ED WELLS, COURT MANAGER OF THE OFFICE OF COURT MANAGEMENT, HARRIS COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTS AT LAW, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY, AND HONORABLE PAULA GOODHART, PRESIDING JUDGE OF THE HARRIS COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTS AT LAW IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY, Appellees

          On Appeal from the 55th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2016-25766

          Panel consists of Chief Justice Radack and Justices Massengale and Brown.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Sherry Radack, Chief Justice

         In this appeal of an original mandamus proceeding filed in the district court, appellant, Enrique Ramirez, sought to compel appellees, Ed Wells and the Honorable Paula Goodhart, [1] to comply with his request for information under the Texas Public Information Act ("PIA"). After competing motions for summary judgment were filed, the trial court denied Ramirez's summary judgment and granted appellees' summary judgment. In one issue, Ramirez argues that he has the right to information related to his removal from a list of approved attorneys eligible for appointment to represent indigent defendants.

         We affirm.

         Background

         Ramirez had been on a list of attorneys eligible to receive appointments under the Fair Defense Act [Alternative] Plan of the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law.[2] On November 17, 2015, Ramirez, along with a number of other attorneys, received administrative order number 2015-5, stating that he was no longer eligible to receive appointments to represent indigent defendants.

         Ramirez filed an appeal of his involuntary removal. By letter dated December 17, 2015, the former presiding judge of the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law notified Ramirez he had been correctly removed.

         Ramirez then contacted Wells and requested access to the information related to his removal. Wells responded, stating that the "judiciary is specifically exempt from the provisions of the Texas Public Information Act" and "internal deliberations on court or judicial administration matters are exempt from disclosure under the Rules of Judicial Administration." Wells concluded that "the requested records are exempt from disclosure and we are unable to provide you with any requested information." Wells also stated that Ramirez could appeal the denial of his request pursuant to Rule 12.9 of the Rules of Judicial Administration.[3]

         Ramirez appealed to the Office of Court Administration, arguing that the decision to remove him from the list was an administrative decision and thus the information he requested did not constitute judicial records. Ramirez also argued that even if the information sought is properly categorized as a judicial record, he has a common-law right to inspect and copy judicial records absent some compelling reason to keep it hidden from public view.

         The Office of Court Administration formed a special committee to determine Ramirez's appeal. In appeal number 16-005, the committee determined that the "maintenance of a list of attorneys who are eligible for appointment under a county's Fair Defense Act plan are related to a judge's adjudicative function. Accordingly, the records at issue in this appeal are not 'judicial records' as defined by Rule 12.2(d) and are not subject to Rule 12." The committee concluded that "[b]ecause the records at issue in this appeal are not judicial records under Rule 12, we can neither grant the petition in whole or in part nor sustain the denial of access to the requested records." On October 13, 2016, the appellees filed a motion for rehearing in the Office of Court Administration. On December 6, 2016, the committee issued a supplemental Rule 12 Decision stating that it was without authority to consider appellees' motion for rehearing. Nevertheless, the committee maintained that the information requested was not classified as judicial records and that to the extent that their decision conflicted with a previous Rule 12 Decision No. 08-009, that decision was overruled.

         After the Office of Court Administration's special committee stated that it could neither grant the petition, nor sustain the denial of records, Ramirez filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the trial court pursuant to section 552.321 of the PIA, [4] arguing that appellees failed to comply with the PIA. Ramirez later moved for a traditional summary judgment, arguing that section 552.023[5] required appellees to comply with his PIA request because the records he sought were not judicial, but administrative records. Ramirez attached an affidavit along with other supporting documentation. The appellees responded to Ramirez's summary judgment motion, arguing that the judiciary is exempt from the PIA. Wells attached an affidavit, stating that "These records were made or maintained by the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law in their regular course of business. The records were not created, produced, or filed in connection with any matter that is or has been before a court. The records are internal records of the judges and their staff, made with every intention that they remain confidential, and were never placed in open court or made public."

         On December 9, 2016, the trial court denied Ramirez's motion for summary judgment. Thereafter, appellees moved for summary judgment, arguing that the PIA does not apply to the judiciary, and they attached the same affidavit from Wells that was filed in response to Ramirez's summary judgment ...


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