HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The judge presiding over the civil cases in the Astroworld tragedy has issued a sweeping gag order that would severely limit what attorneys and clients can publicly share about the cases as they move through the court system.
Judge Kristen Hawkins issued the order last week, surprising veteran attorneys who practice in Harris County.
"It's rare that a judge on their own will issue a gag order on the case," said Stan Schneider, a long-time criminal attorney with no interest in any of the Astroworld civil cases. "It's rare they will take the initiative and say this is how we will limit publicity."
Schneider points out that most gag orders relate to high-profile criminal cases. He says judges issue them in high-profile criminal proceedings because those cases often go to trial, and having a fair jury pool is crucial.
"In a civil case, very few of them go to trial," said Schneider, pointing to the reality that many civil suits are settled out of court and far from public view. "Very few of them will have the same implications that a criminal case would have."
Hawkins' office confirmed to ABC13 that neither plaintiffs nor defense attorneys asked for a gag order. In the ruling, the judge cites several reasons for its implementation.
They include; high profile subject matter, national and local media coverage, extensive attorney interviews were given to the media, attorneys' extensive social media postings.
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"The court finds that the willingness of attorneys to give interviews and independently post case events to social media will only to serve to increase the volume of pre-trial and in-trial publicity." Hawkins wrote in her order." The court further finds that an order restricting extra-judicial commentary by counsel for the parties is necessary to preserve all parties' right to a fair trial by an impartial jury."
South Texas College of Law Professor Kenneth Williams says although rare, the judge is well within her rights to issue such an order.
"Generally, the parties have a right to speak, that includes the litigants," said Williams. "But, the court also can balance that, with the need to provide a fair trial to both parties."
As a result, Schneider says it will be harder for the public to stay informed because so much of what happens in civil court already takes place behind closed doors.
"Is the case going to end up in trial? Probably not," Schneider says. "So there's no real purpose in this gag order because nothing will be done in public."
On the criminal side, Houston police are still investigating the Astroworld tragedy. Nobody knows if any charges will be filed criminally. There is no gag order on the criminal side because nothing is in court yet. However, Williams says the chilling effect is widespread.
"As a practical matter, they can't say much because the order says anything that can cause the impartiality of the trial. The parties can not comment on that." said Williams.
ABC13 contacted several civil attorneys involved in the various Astroworld lawsuits. Some were not aware of the gag order.
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Cone of silence: Gag order issued for Astroworld civil cases
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