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A plan to bring our Texas courts into 21st century

Houston Chronicle, March 25, 2007


We began the administration of justice in this state with three tiers of trial courts; now, we have seven. As our courts have evolved, instead of a cohesive system of justice statewide, we are left with a different interpretation in each of Texas' 254 counties. This antiquated court system is unwieldy, inefficient and almost impossible for ordinary citizens to understand.

It is time to bring Texas courts into the 21st century. That's why I am advocating for court modernization in Texas Senate Bill 1204.

Texans deserve a common-sense court system. We must cut out the inefficiencies and ensure our courthouses are structured to meet the challenges of a global economy and dynamic population increases.

Texas is the world's eighth largest economy, and we realize more from corporate start-ups than any other state. Businesses and their consumers need laws that are fair and effective, and the Texas Legislature has worked hard to develop them. However, we also need consistent, streamlined courts that can effectively administer those laws.

Many lawsuits in Texas involve complicated issues of law that may include narrow scientific, medical or technical evidence, multiple parties and dozens of lawyers. These time- and resource-heavy cases may be heard in courtrooms in which the judge lacks the time and resources to handle them. The result is a bogged-down docket, which generally slows the process at the expense of other litigants. This situation serves no one well.

The court modernization bill would establish a Judicial Panel on Complex Cases to identify these complex cases. Cases so identified could then be referred to trial courts that offer the appropriate resources for effective adjudication.

More narrowly defined cases need a better structure, too. That's why the court modernization bill also addresses the area of our civil justice system that is not so complex ” small claims court. SB 1204 would raise the jurisdiction limit on small claims from $5,000 to $10,000 and move these cases to our local justice of the peace courts.

Citizens could bring small claims to these courts, without a lawyer if they choose, and receive efficient and timely resolution. Justices of the peace would continue to handle all evictions, but losing parties would have broader rights of appeal.

To reduce confusion at the courthouse, the court modernization bill would standardize our county courts-at-law for the purpose they were originally intended ” to quickly dispose of simple cases with $100,000 or less in question.

The 56 county courts-at-law that currently handle controversies involving more than $100,000 would be converted to state district courts; or they would be allowed to choose to return to the standard jurisdiction of $100,000 cases.

Texas has fine, hard-working judges who strive to handle all matters fairly and effectively, but they are hindered by the cumbersome structure of our court system. The fundamental goal of the court modernization bill is to bring consistency and efficiency to our judicial system.

Any Texan's experience at the local courthouse should be managed by a rational justice system that behaves the same as its neighboring counties.

Duncan is a Republican state senator from Lubbock.