Texas' chief justice calls for overhaul of state courts
Jefferson says ‘patchwork’ system should be reviewed, streamlined.
By Mike Ward
Texas’ top judge called Tuesday for a sweeping top-to-bottom review of the state courts system, suggesting that changes need to be made in the complex patchwork of justice. In remarks before a joint session of the Legislature, Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson recommended that courts’ work areas be redrawn, a process akin to congressional redistricting that is allowed under the Texas Constitution but has never been carried out and one that is expected to bring opposition from judges.
“It is time to invoke it,” Jefferson said of the process.
The chief justice cited overlapping and confusing jurisdictions, inconsistency in court rulings and courts that are overloaded with cases while others have too few.
“Texas’ patchwork court system has developed over many decades, resulting in a current structure that has gone from elaborate to Byzantine,” Jefferson said.
He called on the Legislature to start “examining whether Texans are best served by the current, and often redundant, complex system of county courts at law, district courts and statutory probate courts, or whether streamlining some of these courts may create a simpler system.”
Texas’ more than 3,000 courts in 254 counties look much the same, in structure, as they did more than a century ago, if not more complicated thanks to Band-Aid changes lawmakers have approved to address growing caseloads over the years. Texas is among just a few states with such a multilayered, arguably antiquated courts system, court officials said. Legislative leaders were cautiously supportive of the proposal.
State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, who heads the powerful State Affairs Committee, said he intends to file a bill to streamline state courts among other changes, including, perhaps, transforming county courts at law and others into district courts.
“No one wants to change . . . but we have to,” Duncan said. “What we have now is a patchwork that doesn’t work well.”
Jefferson also proposed a review into the growing use of private dispute resolution to settle legal disputes outside the public courts, a practice he cautioned could undermine the integrity of the public courts.
“A privately litigated matter may well affect public rights,” Jefferson said. “Its resolution may ultimately harm the public good or, because those decisions are secret, impede an innovation to a recurring problem, much to the detriment of Texas citizens.”
Jefferson also called for lawmakers to consider other changes, including specialized business courts, new policies to put mentally ill people in treatment, the creation of a special state commission to review innocence claims and continued funding for programs that provide lawyers for defendants who have no money.
And he recommended that the Legislature establish a new commission to review judicial salaries. Two years ago, amid warnings by Jefferson in a similar speech that judges were quitting too frequently because of low pay, lawmakers gave state judges their first raise in several years.
Much of Jefferson’s proposal seemed to parallel the platform being pushed Tuesday by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, though Jefferson said his recommendations were unrelated.
In addition to streamlining the Texas courts system to curb disorganization, the group recommended appointment of most judges, a new system of small claims courts, giving the Supreme Court additional power to manage the courts system and establishing new rules for handling complex cases.
Though Jefferson said the time is ripe for the reforms, legislative leaders said similar good ideas have been derailed many times before. Past attempts to reapportion Texas courts as required by the constitution have failed, he said.
“This won’t be easy, but it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
A look at the state court jumble
TEXAS COURTS: AT A GLANCE
Texas has seven different types of major trial courts: state district courts, constitutional county courts, statutory county courts, statutory probate courts, justice of the peace courts, small claims courts and municipal courts.
Jurisdictions vary from one county to another.
In some counties, the statutory county courts have overlapping jurisdiction with state district courts; in others, their jurisdiction is limited to cases in which the disputed amount is $100,000 or less.
A civil suit that would be tried before a 12-person jury in one court could be tried before a six-person jury in another.
Only 7 percent of Texas’ justices of the peace are lawyers, even though they can hear cases involving multimillion-dollar claims.
A justice of the peace can evict a tenant from commercial property worth millions of dollars, but the losing party cannot appeal beyond the constitutional or statutory county court.
District court vacancies are filled by the governor.
Vacancies in statutory county courts are filled by commissioners courts.
Many Texas trial courts must answer to two different courts of appeal, and some must answer to four ” the only state in the nation to allow that. Those appellate courts often disagree on important questions of law, resulting in legal confusion.
Several Texas trial judges are supervised by more than one administrative judge, leading to more confusion and blurring the lines of responsibility and accountability.
Source: Texans for Lawsuit Reform
TEXAS COURTS: THE STRUCTURE
Justice of the peace courts
825 courts with one judge in each, sitting in all 254 counties
1,396 judges in 912 cities
Constitutional county courts
254 courts with one judge in each, one court per county
Statutory county courts
217 courts with one judge in each, sitting in 84 counties
Statutory probate courts
17 courts with one judge in each, sitting in 10 counties S
tate district courts
432 courts with one judge in each, sitting in one or more counties
Courts of appeal
14 courts with 80 justices, with regional jurisdiction
Court of Criminal Appeals
1 court with nine judges, with statewide jurisdiction as the top appeals court for criminal cases
Supreme Court of Texas
1 court with nine justices, with stateside jurisdiction as the top appeals court for civil cases
Source: Texas Supreme Court, Texans for Lawsuit Reform