Tarrant County’s newest district court was formed in January. It’s still without a judge
It’s been more than four months since Tarrant County got a new court to help handle criminal cases, but it’s unclear when a full time judge will take over the bench. The Legislature created a number of new courts in Texas in 2021, including the 485th District Court, a felony court focused on criminal cases that was established on Jan. 1. Because it was established after the filing period for the November election, the Tarrant County Republican and Democratic parties can select a nominee for the November ballot, but that can’t happen until members of the parties’ new executive committee begin their terms this summer, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. In the meantime, Gov. Greg Abbott can appoint someone to fill the bench to serve until a new judge is elected, however Abbott hasn’t made his pick.
The Tarrant County Republican Party has recommended for appointment Andy Porter, an associate judge in Tarrant County who is running for the county’s Criminal District Court No. 4, said Rick Barnes, the party’s chairman. He anticipates a selection won’t be made until after July 1, when the party’s new leadership steps in. The governor’s office did not return requests for comment about the process and timeline for an appointment.
Judge George Gallagher, who serves as the administrative judge as well as judge of the 396th District Court, said the court is up and running. Commissioners in February 2021 approved a resolution to support the creation of the court by the Legislature to help reduce backlogs. Commissioners were asked to support two new courts. “We had gotten to the point where we couldn’t keep up and then when COVID hit, it was really bad,” Gallagher said. Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley isn’t ruling out asking for another court when legislators again convene in January. “We’ll just have to see how things are as they go through the process,” Whitley said. Prosecutors have been assigned to the court. Gallagher said a magistrate judge, himself or a visiting judge have overseen cases as they move through the court.
“The court’s running very smoothly even though we don’t have a judge,” Gallagher said. County records show there are 2,184 cases pending in the court and 757 cases have been disposed as of Monday. There are 21,331 cases pending in the county’s 11 felony criminal courts, including the 485th District Court. As of Monday 8,383 cases have been filed in the courts and 8,491 disposed this year. The District Attorney’s Office, which handles the prosecution of criminal cases in the county, declined to comment. Representatives from the Tarrant County Bar Association and the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association did not return requests for comment. It’s unclear when or if Abbott will appoint someone to fill the bench. Barnes said the governor’s office didn’t decline to accept their choice — Porter — but “chose not to make the decision at that point in time.” Barnes thinks Porter being on the ballot for another court factored into the decision to hold off on an appointment. He expects the party to hold another meeting after July 1 with the new leadership, including precinct chairs, to reconfirm their recommendation or determine next steps.
“The governor may say since he’s already is on the ballot for the November election, he would like for us to look at somebody different,” Barnes said. “I just don’t know what he’s going to say. We’re going to have to have that conversation with the governor’s office — how he wants us to move forward after July 1.” E-mails and calls to Porter’s campaign were not returned. Porter, an associate judge for the 323rd District Court, which hears child welfare and juvenile delinquency cases, is running against Democrat Sam Williams, a former Arlington police officer who works in the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. Allison Campolo, chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said the local party does not believe it is in a position to recommend anyone to Abbott for appointment because the Republican governor “does not take recommendations from the Democratic Party.” “We expect this eventual appointee will be their November nominee and when we have confirmation from the Secretary of State and/or Elections Administration, we’ll select a nominee of our own,” Campolo said.
The bill that established the 485th District Court and others in the state also stipulated that County Criminal Court No. 6 will give preference to family violence cases starting in January 2023.