GOP push to overhaul Texas appeals courts districts on back burner for now in face of opposition
AUSTIN — A Senate bill that likely would have reversed the Democrats’ recent judicial gains in three of Texas’ biggest metro areas – but also irritated some rural Republicans – is off the front burner in this year’s session.
On Friday, Democratic activists said they welcomed Houston GOP Sen. Joan Huffman’s decision not to press forward with her plan to consolidate the state’s 14 court of appeals districts into seven.
But they remain wary that Huffman and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick might try to resuscitate Senate Bill 11′s concept in an expected special legislative session on redistricting this fall.
“Will we let our guard down? No,” said Jeff Dalton, a North Texas political consultant who helped 11 Democrats get elected to the Dallas area’s 5th Court of Appeals in the past three years. “There’s always a chance of this coming back later in redistricting.”
On Thursday, Huffman, writing on stationery of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, which she heads, wrote senators in part, it appeared, to rebut suggestions she’d sprung a proposed remap of appellate courts with little notice.
Huffman’s office circulated a map of the proposed, seven huge districts late on March 29, three days before her panel heard and approved the plan, Huffman wrote.
But Legislative Council bill drafters weren’t able to complete the revised bill until the evening before the April 1 hearing, she said.
Genevieve Van Cleve, state director of the progressive group All on the Line Texas, said the process raised concerns.
“The journey of SB 11 was secretive, fraught with controversy and ultimately bad for Texas,” said Van Cleve, whose group has ties to former President Barack and his attorney general Eric Holder. “A fully transparent process that results in fair maps which allow the people, not politicians, to choose their elected leaders is not a goal – it is what every Texans deserves.”
Huffman and her spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about whether she’ll try to revive the bill before the 2023 session – and whether she still plans to push in coming weeks for passage of a separate bill, heard at the same time as SB 11 was.
It would yank big lawsuits against the state from the Austin area’s 3rd Court of Appeals – currently all Democrats – and give the cases to a newly created “Texas Court of Appeals.”
Last week, Huffman described SB 11′s overhaul as a much-needed way to slim down the number of courts while evenly spreading out the currently lopsided workload. It was a priority of Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, as signified by its low bill number. And it had backing from the influential lawsuit-limiting group, Texans for Lawsuit Reform.
Last year, the group’s foundation published a paper saying the current arrangement for intermediate appeals courts is “fraught with defects” that create “inefficiencies and confusion.”
Democrats, civil rights advocates, attorneys and judges, though, strongly objected to SB 11 at the April 1 hearing before Huffman’s panel.
They said cutting the number of appellate districts in half likely would knock Black and Hispanic justices off the bench and also disenfranchise rural voters, by lumping their areas with big cities whose candidates would have a financial advantage.
In 2018, Texas Democrats flipped state appeals courts based in Dallas, Houston and Austin, which gave them control of seven of the state’s 14 appeals courts.
At last week’s hearing, Dallas Democratic Sen. Nathan Johnson said he’s heard predictions the rewrite could result in five Republican-dominated appellate courts and two Democratic ones.
Huffman said she didn’t know what the partisan breakdown would be if an election were held today. The districts were redrawn with the objective to address uneven caseloads, she said.
In her letter to colleagues, she didn’t say why she wouldn’t push it further, other than to suggest there’s not enough time left in the session, which ends May 31.
“We listened to the input and are giving careful consideration to the comments and concerns that were voiced,” Huffman wrote. “Since the 87th Legislature concludes its business at the end of May, time does not allow for Senate Bill 11 to move further in the legislative process this session.”
Huffman called the overhaul a “significant undertaking” that she’s spent a lot of time on. “But we also know that this is a nuanced issue with many stakeholders, and we will continue to develop a plan for the appellate courts,” she wrote.
Lucy Nashed, spokeswoman for the Texans for Lawsuit Reform Foundation, said it “continues to believe the system needs rationalization to efficiently meet the needs of our state’s population growth and increasing caseloads.”
Dalton and Van Cleve said Huffman’s plan drew push back from rural and center-right Republicans, not just from Democrats.
“Republican justices in places like Waco and Texarkana could see that they could be pitted against opponents with much larger Republican voter bases in Tarrant, Denton and Collin counties in future elections with these new districts, so clearly the Republican opposition to this was significant,” Dalton said.
Added Van Cleve, “It was opposed by centrist Republicans.”