Dallas commissioners may consider cutting judges’ pay over case backlog
At least two of five Dallas County commissioners have threatened to slash district judge salaries during the upcoming budget cycle if the criminal court case backlog is not sharply reduced.
Commissioners J.J. Koch and John Wiley Price want to vote in the coming weeks on the possibility of withholding the county’s portion of district judges’ salaries over the number of active cases waiting for a trial.
Courthouses nationwide shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, suspending jury trials and dismissing cases, but case filings did not stop. As courtrooms began slowly reopening, massive criminal case backlogs confronted many judges.
Dallas County allocated $3 million of its federal COVID-19 relief dollars to address a logjam of 20,767 active and pending felony cases, but Price said the district courts have no policy in place to report the use of these funds for backlogged cases.
The two commissioners worry about a potential audit of the use of these federal funds.
“That is something I think we should look into regarding some of those performance issues and disclosure issues. If we can’t do our job, we have to have some way of holding them accountable,” Koch said at Tuesday’s regular Commissioners Court meeting. “I think that additional salary that we provide to them should be on the table.”
A district judge in Dallas County earns between $158,000 and $194,000, depending on experience. Most of that sum is paid by the state, but many urban counties provide a “supplemental salary.” Dallas County contributes $18,000 of a district judge’s total annual salary.
Price and Koch are considering asking the Commissioners Court to withhold that $18,000 in the next budget cycle until they see results. The metric potentially tied to their salaries has yet to be determined.
Price said in an interview that he would ultimately be content to release the supplemental salaries if the judges provide a record-keeping policy for backlogged cases that required the federal funds. He worries that the Commissioners Court will be held responsible if Dallas County courts were to fail an audit.
“At the end of the day, we need to make this process better. And as I said, I’m worried about the audit nightmare waiting around the corner,” he said.
Koch is considering tying pay to performance. He said he believes the measure could get the three votes needed to pass if the Commissioners Court can legally require clear metrics on job performance standards before releasing the supplemental salaries.
“This is not an idle threat. This is a conversation we’re actually going to have to have,” he said in an interview.
But the Commissioners Court seems thus far divided.
County Judge Clay Jenkins wants more open dialogue between the branches. He said he used some of his campaign funds to invite judges over to his house for hamburgers and discussion.
Elected officials should know what the salary pays when they run, he said. He wants to work with the district judges to alleviate the criminal case pileup.
“I think it would be a bad faith gesture to lower someone’s salary in the middle of their term,” he told The Dallas Morning News. “I don’t always have them over for hamburgers, but I do try to deal with them as respected persons chosen by the voters to do an important job.”
Commissioner Elba Garcia said she is certain this move would not be legal. If a judge is not overseeing as many cases as their counterparts, Garcia said the Commissioners Court does not have the right to dock their pay.
“I can almost bet my right hand, which I never bet, that this will not pass legal muster,” she said.
Commissioner Theresa Daniel did not respond to a request for comment.
The two government branches have been publicly at odds for months over the active case backlogs.
District judges did not respond to requests for comment regarding the commissioners’ discussion, but State District Judge Stephanie Huff, the presiding judge for the felony courts, said in April that she did not agree with Koch and Price’s assessment of district judges. Judges have been working to conduct trials more frequently, she said.
“We’re moving cases left and right,” Huff told The News at that time. “We’re working every day. We’re asking for the resources to get our jobs done.”
Koch and Price said they have approved of budget requests asked by the district judges.
“Anything they’ve asked for, we’ve given,” Price said Wednesday.
The case backlog is hurting the criminal justice process, Koch said. While cases are pending, he said those accused could wait in jail longer than normal and police and witnesses’ memories could fade.
“That leads to poor outcomes regarding the state having to plead something in a way that it didn’t want to,” he said.
District judges have also claimed the Commissioners Court’s concerns over not meeting state standards are fueled by faulty data that included issues such as cases being counted in the backlog more than once. Dallas County met the 90% disposition rate by the August deadline required to retain its $50 million in state funds.
Because of the pandemic, criminal trials were paused in 2020 and did not resume until April 2021. Price and Koch say some district judges have not been working hard enough to catch up on cases.
According to data from the Office of Court Administration, the number of Dallas County’s active and pending felony cases has increased from January 2022, while most other urban counties have seen decreases.
From January to June this year, Harris County’s active and pending felony case count has dropped by 3,572, Bexar County’s case count fell by 767, Collin County dropped by 751, Tarrant County’s fell by 203 cases, and Denton County dropped by 112.
Only pending and active felony case backlogs in Dallas County and Travis County grew through 2022: by 2,415 and 935 cases, respectively.
“The bottom line is, you signed up to be a judge, and just like someone who signed up to be in the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, there are times that you have to be sent to war,” Koch said in an interview. “If your normal job is usually at a desk on a base, but now you have to do something that’s a 24-hour gig, you gotta crank through it, because duty calls. For judges, duty calls right now.”
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