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Harrison County DA, judge seek opinion on gag order

By Bridget Ortigo
June 17, 2017 at 4 a.m.

Harrison County District Attorney Coke Solomon  (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Harrison County District Attorney Coke Solomon and Judge Brad Morin's offices have sought the opinion of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton before releasing a public copy of a gag order that was reportedly issued in the criminal cases involving former Hallsville ISD coach Dean McDaniel.

The News Messenger sent an open records request on June 1 to Solomon and Morin's offices requesting an official copy of the gag order that was reportedly issued during a hearing in Morin's court on the same day. The gag order allegedly placed a gag against media only regarding both of McDaniel's pending criminal cases.

Both Morin and Solomon's offices forwarded the request to the county's attorney, Laura Carpenter, who responded Friday and said that Morin and Solomon's office were seeking an opinion from Paxton on whether or not they are required to release a copy of the gag order to the public because a gag order has been issued in the case.

"I mailed out a response letter to you yesterday requesting an opinion letter from the Texas Attorney General," Carpenter responded to the News Messenger on Friday.

Carpenter sited Texas Government Code, Sec. 552.107(2) as Morin and Solomon's reason for requesting the gag order be kept confidential.

The order specifically states, "Information is excepted from the requirements of Section 552.021 if a court by order has prohibited disclosure of the information."

Freedom of Information Hotline Attorney Jim Hemphill said Friday while he couldn't comment on this case specifically, copies of gag orders are generally public record and an order issuing a gag does not fall under the gag itself.

"While I'm not giving an opinion on this particular case, the public has a right to see who requested the gag order and on what basis, to make sure the request is constitutional," Hemphill said. "Gag orders themselves need to be public so the public can be aware of what our courts are doing and why."

Under the same governmental code sited by Carpenter, the public has a right to the information contained in the public record, excluding those exempt by law.

"Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees," the state code states.

"The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."

According to a handwritten note inside McDaniel's case file on June 1 that read "gag on media June 1,", the gag is reportedly against media only. It is unclear who wrote the note in the file, who requested the gag order and why, or who granted the order.

After the June 1 hearing, Solomon refused to comment on the details of the gag order other than to say it covered both of McDaniel's pending criminal cases.

According to the Freedom of Information Act, a party is allowed 10 business days to respond to an open records request.

The News Messenger sent its request to Morin and Solomon on June 1, seeking to find out who requested the gag order, who the gag involved, who granted the order and why.

"Specifically I am seeking a copy of the 'gag order' approved and signed by a judge during a hearing on June 1, 2017 as well as any orders stating documents in the McDaniel cases are to be sealed," the News Messenger's public information request stated.

Friday marked the deadline of the News Messenger's request.

According to Paxton's website, his office "generally issues its decisions within 45 days of receipt of the request for a decision."

A trial date of Aug. 7 is set for a jury to hear the improper relationship between student and teacher charge involving McDaniel, as well as a separate charge of three counts of indecency with a child by exposure.

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