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Saturday, July 13, 2024 at 5:04 AM

Once can sometimes be enough

A STORY WORTH TELLING

Breakin’ rocks in the hot sun. I fought the law, and the law won.

— Song lyrics by Sonny Curtis, a 1966 top ten hit for the Bobby Fuller Four

Got to thinking last week about my longstanding association with courthouses. Halls of Justice for defining those who “fought the law.”

Some things become part of our lives, whether we plan it that way or not. For me, one has been viewing the justice system through the eyes of writing news stories; hanging out around courthouses. Memorable moments of personal stakes in some of those courthouse stories.

Like the laughable admonition among friends and business associates years ago suggesting we avoid finding ourselves “wearing three-piece suits and being addressed as defendant.” It was funny…back then.

However, I found it less than humorous the one time I found myself in that situation. It ended well, at least for me. The rest of that story in a minute.

That day and a couple others crossed my mind last week. Memories stirred by Center’s Rayford Copeland briefing the local Lions Club on pending grant applications to restore the Historic Shelby County Courthouse. According to Copeland’s presentation, the red brick “castle” design is the only remaining Romanesque Revival courthouse in Texas.

Although partially restored at times over the years, the structure now needs a complete restoration for proper preservation. The estimated cost in the master plan presented to commissioners a few weeks ago for grant application approval was $7 million.

Self-taught brick mason and Scotland native architect J.J.E.

Gibson reportedly completed the courthouse around the end of 1885.

The county is said to have occupied it in early 1886. Gibson might be astounded at the restoration cost 139 years later.

His bill for construction in 1885 dollars? Try $26,000.

In December of 1992, a chamber ribbon cutting celebrated county business moving into the current courthouse a block down San Augustine Street. Since then, the period-correct courtroom of the 19th-century edifice has been used for community events like the local VFW’s recent Memorial Day remembrance.

Despite her age, she still looks good after more than 100 years of hosting Lady Justice.

One instance was another time I raised my right hand to swear, “So help me, God,” testifying in defense of newspaper headlines published atop a murder trial story. The defense attorney was doing what they get paid to do: lobbying for a change of venue where fewer people know about the crime.

Holding copies of the newspaper with headlines embellished in red magic marker, the lawyer asked me to read them aloud.

I did.

“Do you really think my client can get a fair trial in Center with publicity like that,” he asked. “Yes sir,” I responded.

“It’s factual, without opinion and does not even mention the defendants name.” I still remember sitting on the witness stand, in awe of what a beautiful reflection of its era the old courthouse was then. I still get the same feeling when entering it today.

The only time I might have been more in awe of watching justice defined was in the highest “courthouse” in the land. The U.S. Supreme Court.

“And what is your association with this case,” asked the person on the phone. “Your interest in press credentials?”

“I’m the editor and publisher of the newspaper in Boerne, Texas,” I said. “Where the case being heard originated.”

“Oh,” she responded as if I had just answered the $64,000 question.

“Absolutely, you need to be here.”

That’s how I found myself sitting in the Supreme Court press gallery in Washington D.C. Listening to arguments in a case about which I had written stories while covering the Boerne City Council.

Chronicling their dispute with a Catholic Church Archbishop that led to the case styled “City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997);” a landmark “church and state” case.

CNN on my right. BBC in front of me. Second row of the press gallery.

Watching from mere feet away, Justices Thomas, Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, Kennedy, Scalia, Rehnquist, O’Connor and Stevens counter the opinions of seasoned attorneys for both sides.

Cliff Notes version: San Antonio Archbishop Flores sued Boerne claiming violation of rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by denying a permit to replace the old church building located partially within a historic district.

The city contended the RFRA was unconstitutional in attempting to override local ordinances. Hence: Church vs State.

The court ruled 6-3 that, in layman’s terms, the RFRA had in fact been improperly applied in that case. In short, Boerne prevailed. The church in the historic district still stands.

And as for the rest of that courthouse story about a three-piece suit and dubbed as defendant?

Following a month’slong investigative reporting series on alleged misuse of government resources by public officials, a group of them sued for libel. Me, the newspaper and its owner, for multi-millions. After a week-long trial, the verdict was “not guilty.” Ultimately, all plaintiffs in the suit resigned or were defeated in the next election.

Great stories to recall, all of them. Thankfully, I don’t have a “breaking rocks in the hot sun” story. I just like that old song.

And, if you’re wondering, just one “wearing a three-piece suit and being addressed as defendant” story is enough for me.


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