H.V. O’Brien owner and publisher of several community newspapers in Eastland County invited me a year or so ago to lend my support to a project he was involved with and to serve on the founding board if it ever got off the ground. I agreed and several weeks ago the founding group met for the first time and formally elected a board of directors. Jim Farrar, an Eastland attorney, was elected chairman, a couple of committees were formed and with the day’s action the Austin McCloud Appellate Court Museum took a major step toward becoming a reality.
The venue for the meeting was an appropriate choice to host a group discussing the creation of a museum. The Roof Garden atop the historic Connellee Hotel in downtown Eastland provided an excellent example of how restoration of a landmark building could serve multiple purposes. The room was the top floor of the hotel and large windows dominated two walls allowing views of the city and surrounding area. The room functions as a venue for private gatherings and receptions similar to the Depot Cultural and Civic Center in Brownwood.
Many of the parts of the plan for the museum are in place. A site has been selected and purchased, the historic first courthouse building across the street from the hotel, and a name chosen. It is named for retired Chief Justice Austin McCloud. Architectural plans have been drawn and approved, a corporation has been formed and a 501 C-3 non-profit tax status achieved. The group has applied for a grant from the Texas Bar Foundation for partial funding but has not received notification of an outcome. Off the record, the group heard that the assets of the Bar Foundation and the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation have been taxed due to the events in San Angelo surrounding the YFZ Ranch proceedings.
There are 14 Courts of Appeals in Texas, but only one is located in a rural community the size of Eastland. Over the years, there have been several attempts by larger communities to take it away but it has survived in part because of acceptance by people of the city and those in neighboring communities the Eastland court serves. The Eleventh Court of Appeals was created in 1925, and Texas history students will recall that was not long after the big oil boom hit in Ranger just up the road. The court consists of three Justices hearing cases from 28 counties including Brown. I learned that 90 percent of the cases on appeal are settled at the appellate level. The Supreme Court may get most of the headlines but the appeals justices do most of the heavy lifting.
The group heard current Chief Justice of the 11th Court, Jim Wright, describe his vision for the museum. He said the unique position of being in a small community, with scheduling, we can arrange actual multiple courtroom exposures for public school groups and colleges. The students can experience court from the Justice of the Peace Court, through County, District and the Appellate Court levels. They would be able to tie the history of the Texas Court system together for students and visitors. The 11th District Court of Appeals has held court in Brownwood on the campus of Howard Payne University in the Bettie and Robert Girling Center for Social Justice. Criminal justice, pre-law and political science majors were invited to sit in on four current cases ranging from civil to criminal law this past March. It was an opportunity for the students to experience the justice system at work in a real, live setting.
The museum will house the usual collection of rare artifacts one would expect to find, but one of them mentioned seemed very contemporary. There will be a law library, actually two of them. One will be a large room with shelves full of the legal volumes most people (my age) associate with a law library. The second one will be much smaller, a media room with computers and disks depicting how legal research is done today.
There is still considerable distance to travel before the museum comes to fruition. But it became clear to me it would be a great resource for our area and its rural location will provide a unique opportunity for more people to experience and learn about the Texas Court system.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.