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Courts in crisis
Aug 23, 2009

Courts in crisis - Time to get Priorities Straight

Harris County, Texas is somewhere between the 3rd and 6th largest population in the United States, depending on which survey you accept.  Yet, our county government is exceptionally small.  We elect a county judge, who acts as a sort of mayor for the county, who serves with 4 county commissioners, who act like a city councilman or alderman, albeit on steroids (which probably just caused a huge gasp).  The government structure will have to wait for another blog.

The Texas legislature has the power to create district courts, which must be funded in part by the counties.  The counties have the power to create courts at law, which must be funded primarily by the county.  The legislature also has the ability to confer joint jurisdiction for these courts.  For example, in Harris County, all divorces go through the Harris County Family District Courts.  If you travel immediately north to Montgomery County, your divorce could be assigned to either a district court or a county court at law, because the legislature has authorized concurrent jurisdiction there.

Harris County Commissioner's Court, the Harris County Judiciary, and the Texas Legislature, need to review the court structure in Harris County because it makes no sense at all and denies access to the court.  Consider:

*There are 25 civil district courts, plus 4 county civil courts at law, and 4 probate courts.  We know the civil district court dockets are dwindling.

*There are 22 criminal district courts that handle felonies.  This does not include the 15 county criminal courts at law that handle jail-able misdemeanors.  We know those dockets are burgeoning.

We know we need more criminal district courts if we do not change the way we handle petty drug cases (known as residue cases, where the evidence is usually a trace amount of drugs found in a pipe or baggy).  Judge Michael McSpadden in the 208th Criminal District Court has long advocated removing these petty cases from the criminal district court docket as a means of avoiding creating new criminal district courts (and another blog for another day).

*The 12 family law courts - 3 juvenile district courts coupled with 9 divorce courts - handle considerably more litigation than the 25 civil district courts, with each court's docket in the area of 5,000 cases each. 

Harris County needs at least 2, and probably 4, new family law district courts.  There are simply too few family courts for such a large metropolitan area.  It also contributes to Harris County's deserved reputation for being the most expensive place in Texas to get a divorce.

There are several options to resolve this problem, but all require some political backbone:

1.  The next vacancies on the civil district court bench should be filled with appointees familiar with juvenile and/or family law. 

Between elections, Harris County usually loses 2-3 elected judges.  Some return to private practice, some go on to other courts (federal or appellate), and occasionally there are other reasons.  Doesn't it make sense to fill that bench with an attorney who knows about family or juvenile law and alleviate the overcrowded dockets in those courts?

The advantages are clear.  The court is already created and funded - no new tax dollars.  In this economy, and this populace, that is a major selling point.  

Cases from the juvenile or family docket are redistributed, thus reducing the dockets in those courts.  This will allow families to get to resolution more quickly, and permit the judges in these courts to give more attention to families and cases.  Or do we need for another child to slip through the cracks and be returned to an abusive home or killed?

The cases of the former civil district court are redistributed to the 20+ remaining district courts whose dockets have dwindled.  It's not like this is a big deal.  A new civil judge will likely have many cases transferred because she has a conflict of interest from her days as a litigator.

Now, I'm not dumb.  Big powerful law firms with hundreds of lawyers working there like to put "their" people on the bench and boast how many current judges worked there, how many former judges work there.  The family law divisions in such firms tend to be small, and juvenile divisions do not exist.  These firms make their money fighting over millions of dollars in insurance proceeds and broken contract claims.  They will oppose anything that removes a place to park the junior partner who isn't cutting it, the senior partner who needs a break, or "their guy".

2.  The legistlature authorizes concurrent jurisdiction and Harris County creates dedicated county courts at law to handle the litigation.

The primary advantage of this is big law firms get to keep their prized civil benches.  It provides cover for the politican.

However, there are huge complications with this option.  The question of what kind of cases should be assigned to the family county court at law becomes very real.  Some judges and attorneys may not want to have such concurrent jurisdiction, believing that only a district court should hear protective orders, allegations of abuse, etc.  I somehow do not believe that Harris County will look at how it works elsewhere in the state and just adopt it for use here.  Historically, Harris County has not.

Further, this requires a tax increase, born mostly by the county.  That means higher taxes or more bonds and debt.  The county already faces huge expenditures to improve jail conditions or risk federal involvement (yet another blog for another day).  There is also the issue of Harris County adding a public defenders office and its costs (again, another thread for another day).

The Harris County Family Law Center needs to be torn down and an entirely new courthouse constructed on the same spot.  It needs to be a centralized location - one stop shopping for the family courts - that includes an intake for services and drug screening.  The current location is too small and inefficient for its purposes, and adding multiple additional courts and staff complicates the matter.

3.  The legislature approves new family and juvenile district courts.

The big firms would still be happy that "their guys" do not lose benches, and the county does not pay as much to fund these courts.  There is no argument with the judiciary over jursidiction - they are all equals.

The problem here becomes the Texas legislature.  While Harris County has a huge delegation, the rest of the State gets quite tired, frankly, of Harris County wanting things their way.  The Texas Tomorrow Fund - the prepaid college tuition program - is short and these kids were promised an education.  Other parts of the state, and probably those from neighboring counties, will balk at spending state money for a problem Harris County can fix on its own nickel.  And big law firms have no dog in this hunt, so they will be of little help.

In any event, our courts are in crisis, and it needs to be addressed.  Soon.

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Readers Comments
D. W. Hale
Aug 26, 2009 2:58 PM
You are a true believer and I have taken all my cases in the respect of "what would Dave do...."
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