Court Rules on Discovery to Clients under the Michael Morton Act (39.14)

May a Court Order that an Attorney Can Provide Copies of Discovery to a Client Pursuant to the Michael Morton Act?

Michael Morton Act In Re PowellThe Court of Criminal Appeals recently handed down an opinion on a petition for writ of mandamus in regard to a discovery dispute arising out of Article 39.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure —otherwise known as the Michael Morton Act. The central issue facing the Court was whether the relator (a party who has standing and on whose behalf a writ of mandamus is petitioned for by the state as plaintiff) satisfied the criteria to justify mandamus relief.

See the full opinion in In re Powell v. Hocker (NO. WR-85,177-01)

The Facts—Trial Judge Granted Defendant’s Motion to Release Discovery.

Ellen Wilson, the real party of interest, was charged with misdemeanor DWI in the County Court at Law in Lubbock, Texas. Wilson’s attorney obtained discovery pursuant to Article 39.14 and filed a motion to “release” Wilson from the prohibition contained in subsection (f) of the statute. Subsection (f) of Article 39.14 permits a defense attorney to “allow a defendant . . . to view the [discovery] information provided under this article,” but the defense attorney “may not allow” the defendant “to have copies of the information provided[.]

In the brief filed in support of the motion, Wilson’s attorney prayed that the County Court at Law would “permit defense counsel to give her a properly redacted copy of the requested items of the State’s evidence.” The brief did not maintain that Wilson had been unable to “view” the discovery in the attorney’s possession, as the statute expressly permits. Rather, it asserted that it was important for Wilson to be able to obtain her own copies in order to effectively help counsel prepare her defense. The trial judge granted Wilson’s motion, but stayed the effect of his ruling pending the State’s application for writ of mandamus.

The Court of Criminal Appeals Conditionally Granted Mandamus Relief—Directing the County Court at law to Rescind its Order Permitting Defense Counsel to Provide Defendant a Copy of the Discovery Materials that were Provided by the State Pursuant to Article 39.14.

In order for a court to determine whether mandamus relief is appropriate, the relator must establish two criteria. State ex rel. Young v. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Dist., 236 S.W.3d 207, 210 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). The relator must demonstrate that he has no adequate remedy at law to rectify the alleged harm. Id. Additionally, the relator must have a clear right to the relief sought. Id. In other words, the relator must show that what he seeks to compel is a ministerial act, not involving a discretionary or judicial decision. Id.

The Court determined that the State had no right to appeal Respondent’s order, which permitted trial counsel to provide the real party of interest with a copy of the discovery materials. More notably, Respondent did not seriously contest this issue. As such, the Court held the first criteria to be satisfied for mandamus relief.

Next, the Court determined the act was ministerial in nature. An act may be deemed “ministerial” when “the facts are undisputed and, given those undisputed facts, the law clearly spells out the duty to be performed … with such certainty that nothing is left to the exercise of discretion or judgment[,]”—even if a judicial decision is involved. State ex rel. Healey v. McMeans, 884 S.W.2d 772, 774 (Tex.Crim.App.1994) (citations omitted). Furthermore, the Court determined this rule extends to cases of first impression.

The Court found Article 39.14 to be clear, unambiguous, and indisputable. Subsection (f) of the statute expressly and unequivocally prohibits the attorney, or her agent, to “allow” the defendant “to have copies of the information provided[.]” Respondent argued that Subsection (f) only speaks to whether the defendant’s attorney may supply him with copies of the discovery materials; it does not prohibit a trial court itself from providing copies. The Court rejected this argument because not doing so would circumvent the unqualified prohibition in subsection (f).

Next, Respondent argued that subsection (e) contemplates scenarios when a trial court may order disclosure of such materials. Subsection (e) expressly prohibits “the defendant” from personally disclosing discovery material to a third party. Respondent argued that this prohibition seems to assume that the defendant would have copies of those materials in the first place to disclose. The Court rejected this argument explaining that a defendant could “disclose” the substance of discovery materials to a third party by memory, having been allowed to “view” them pursuant to Subsection (f).

Rejecting all of Respondent’s arguments, the Court determined that the trial court lacked authority to enter an order that effectively abrogated Article 39.14. As such, the Court conditionally granted mandamus relief directing the County Court at Law to rescind its order.

This opinion solidifies what we already knew about Article 39.14 and have been telling clients all along – defense attorneys MAY NOT provide discovery materials to our clients.  And now, not even if the trial court orders it.

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