‘What Is There to Talk About?’: Texas Judges Are Eyeing 2 Court Redistricting Bills
By Dan Packel
Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.
House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.
However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.
King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.
But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.
“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”
David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.
“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”
He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.
“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.
Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a tort reform advocacy group, has placed appellate court redistricting on a list of priorities for the legislative session.
“Our 14 appellate courts have unequal workloads, and in some parts of our state, a district court answers to several different appellate courts. Texas should consolidate its intermediate appellate courts to achieve more efficiency and administrative rationality,” said the group’s website.
The group is interested in court administration and it has studied intermediate appellate courts and published two papers since 2007, said spokeswoman Lucy Nashed in an email.
One paper by the Texans for Lawsuit Reform Foundation said that if Texas had new appellate court districts, it could reduce the number of conflicting legal rulings that come from the courts. None of Texas’ counties should be in more than one appellate district, said the paper. Some courts are too busy and others are not, and the judiciary uses docket equalization by transferring cases, which “is unpopular with litigants, lawyers and judges.” Texas would save money if there were fewer appellate courts, said the paper.
The paper outlines four ideas for how to redistrict the appellate courts based on population and caseloads. Under one plan, the number of courts would decrease from 14 to seven, and under three of the plans, existing courts would be merged into five courts.
For example, one of the paper’s proposals is based on a 2009 article by David Schenck, who in 2015 became a Fifth Court of Appeals justice.
That plan proposes:
- First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
- Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
- Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
- Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
- Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.
The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.
Reading the Texans for Lawsuit Reform proposals concerned Chief Justice Yvonne Rodriguez of the 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso. She stressed that she doesn’t know what the two bills in the legislature will end up proposing. But the Texans for Lawsuit Reform proposals would combine her court, and other rural appellate courts, with larger urban courts, she explained.
“Rural perspectives would be lost,” she said. “Lawyers and the litigants from West Texas—from our corner of the world—it makes it a little more difficult to access if things are going to be moved to Tarrant or Bexar County. That is like 600 miles away.”
She said she hopes that justices would get to collaborate with lawmakers and address any issues the legislature is concerned about.
“It’s a topic that’s going to impact appellate lawyers and litigants. We need to have a healthy discussion,” Rodriguez said. “Let’s find a way that is going to work for everybody.”
But George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.
In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.
“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”
Also, current justices and attorneys in their towns already know each other, which is hard to leave behind.
“Familiarity is a very important thing to a lawyer,” he said. “The devil you know is much better.”