Hi and welcome to the third edition of the Open Court newsletter, which was sent to subscribers this morning. I’m KSAT journalist Erica Hernandez. I’m writing this free newsletter every other week and when big news breaks. Sign up for this or other free KSAT newsletters here or submit your email below.
As a trial junkie, I’ve always been interested in criminal cases — these are often the proceedings that generate news coverage. But what about the civil side, a massive and sometimes overlooked part of the court system?
After going through the foster-to-adopt process with my little girl, I was intrigued by the wide range of cases that civil judges deal with. They include lawsuits, housing disputes and evictions, divorces, custody battles, bankruptcy, child welfare cases, adoptions, immigration and so much more.
Throughout the pandemic, the Bexar County civil court judges have been working hard to make sure cases were still heard and moved along the process. They initiated a virtual bench trial pilot program and eventually heard jury trials over Zoom.
On Tuesday, I wrote about a civil case involving a new state law that adds restrictions to voter registration and I will continue bringing you the most interesting stories from both sides of the court system.
On the Docket:
Here’s a look at trials and court proceedings we can expect in the coming weeks. Dates are subject to change because of potential delays, rescheduling or plea bargains being reached.
Jessica Briones: mother accused of killing her 4-year-old daughter; facing a charge of intentional injury to a child — hearing set for June 24.
Roy Hernandez: accused in the 1999 murder of his wife; was charged with murder in 2017 -- trial set for July 6.
Otis McKane: accused of killing SAPD detective Benjamin Marconi -- trial set for July 12.
Get to know:
Judge Mary Lou Alvarez
Judge Mary Lou Alvarez is a true superwoman and role model. She is a single mom, engineer, lawyer, and now, a judge.
She has presided over the 45th civil district court since Jan. 1, 2019. She was a part of the blue wave of judges that won in the 2018 election.
Alvarez was born in Karnes City but raised in San Antonio and graduated from Incarnate Word High School.
Alvarez had always wanted to be a lawyer but first, became an engineer. She was an industrial engineer for two years after graduating from Stanford, but then law school came calling. She got her law degree at Seton Hall Law. After graduating she started her career as a Federal Law Clerk with the honorable Ron Clark of the Eastern District Court of Texas, then worked for a defense firm in Dallas, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, then returned to San Antonio to represent victims of domestic violence in divorce, custody, protective order and CPS cases.
When not working hard behind the bench, she is a single mom of two kids. She enjoys planning outdoor activities with them and exploring parks and museums in San Antonio.
After living on both the West Coast and East Coast, why does she continue to stay in the Alamo City?
“I love that San Antonio is the largest small town our state, and probably our country, has to offer,” Alvarez said. “If you grew up in San Antonio, you are probably 3 degrees of separation with anyone else who grew up in SA.”
And if you ever want to grab this judge a breakfast taco make sure it has beans in it.
“Bean and Cheese, unless I’m feeling adventurous then it’s Bean & Bacon or Bean & Brisket but no matter what, the beans need to be good,” Alvarez said.
There are often terms used in a courtroom that sound more like legal jargon than natural language. Even after years of covering court proceedings, I sometimes have to look up words to refresh my memory or make sure I fully understand what’s happening. In each newsletter, I will include a different word or phrase in this legal glossary section so that we can build our knowledge and understanding of the courtroom together.
Burden of proof: This is the duty to prove disputed facts. In civil cases, a plaintiff generally has the burden of proving his or her case. In criminal cases, the government has the burden of proving the defendant’s guilt. The threshold for burden of proof is higher in criminal cases, meaning that prosecutors have a higher bar to clear than someone filing a lawsuit.
A couple of weeks ago, I did a story of Judge Rosie Gonzalez’s fight to get the rainbow Pride flag back in her courtroom after she was ordered to remove it in 2019 following a complaint with the state judicial commission.
I was blown away by the social media reaction to this story. Comments ranged from those in support for her getting the flag back or against any other flag but those of Texas and the United States being in a courtroom. And, of course, there were the rude comments sprinkled in as well.
It was interesting to see how many people were reacting to this issue. Currently, Gonzalez has an appeal pending with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct. That appeal could be heard at some point later this year.
Despite this story developing over two years, I felt Pride Month was important moment to do an update. Judging from the comments, many have strong feelings about it.
I did some research to see if this has been an issue in other states. The only thing I could find is a lawsuit in California where several state representatives there were sued over the rainbow flag on display outside their Capitol offices. A trial court did dismiss that lawsuit but an appeal was filed and is pending.
In Texas, the LGBTQ community views Gonzalez’s appeal as pivotal in their fight for inclusion.