The 2019 State of the Judiciary
By: Lucy Nashed, TLR Communications Consultant
Last week, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht delivered an outstanding State of the Judiciary address to the governor, lieutenant governor, members of the legislature and guests. The chief justice’s speech, which is delivered every other year during the legislative session, addressed several areas of accomplishment for the Texas judiciary, several areas where challenges remain and several goals for the next biennium. Below are excerpts highlighting a few of the topics Chief Justice Hecht discussed, although we encourage you to take a few moments to watch his full remarks here at the 2:10:25 mark. You can read the full text of the speech here.
Of the 80 intermediate appellate justices, 28—35 percent—are new. A third of the 254 constitutional county judges are new. A fourth of trial judges—district, county and justices of the peace—are new. In all, I am told, 443 Texas judges are new to their jobs. On the appellate and district courts alone, the Texas judiciary in the last election lost seven centuries of judicial experience at a single stroke.
No method of judicial selection is perfect. Federal judicial confirmation hearings are regarded as a national disgrace by senators themselves. States have tried every imaginable alternative. Still, partisan election is among the very worst methods of judicial selection. Voters understandably want accountability, and they should have it, but knowing almost nothing about judicial candidates, they end up throwing out very good judges who happen to be on the wrong side of races higher on the ballot. Merit selection followed by nonpartisan retention elections would be better. At a minimum, judicial qualifications should be raised, as the Judicial Council recommends. I urge you: at least, pass Senate Bill 561 and Joint Resolution 35.
Partisan sweeps—they have gone both ways over the years, and whichever way they went, I protested—partisan sweeps are demoralizing to judges, disruptive to the legal system and degrading to the administration of justice. Even worse, when partisan politics is the driving force, and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty. Make no mistake: a judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.
Judicial service—public service—is just that: service. Judges know that going in. It involves personal sacrifice. But public service should not be public servitude… Adjusting for inflation, Texas judges are paid less than they were in 1991, 28 years ago. Experienced judges are just not encouraged to stay.
The Judicial Compensation Commission has recommended that judicial pay be increased 15 percent. House Bill 1 includes a 10 percent increase, which would be very helpful. But Senator Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 387 proposes a different approach that encourages retention of judges. Its essential feature is that judges’ compensation will increase every four years they serve, up to 12 years—basically two terms for appellate judges and three for trial judges. The plan thus rewards experience and recognizes the value of continued service. Like most private-sector employees, judges who work hard and do well would make more over time. And raising beginning salaries remains an option. Senate Bill 387 is the best solution I have seen to the problems associated with increasing judicial compensation.
Modernizing the Judiciary Using Technology—Data Collection
The Judiciary’s single most important need is better technology. Texas has 3,210 judges—more than any other state—plus associate judges and senior judges. They are very busy…. In all, Texas judges handled 8.6 million cases last year. To put that figure in perspective, it’s 23 times the number of cases handled by all the federal courts in the country.
…Texas courts desperately need better data on cases and dockets to operate efficiently and plan for the future. Case types shift over time… Knowing how courts are operating requires better case management systems in all 254 counties… I urge you to fully fund the Office of Court Administration’s technology requests for the judiciary.