Monday, May 3, 2010

Texas Judicial Organization

As a strategic challenge, the most significant and pervasive issue from a state perspective is the high degree of decentralization, complexity, and shared local/state responsibility within the Texas court “system.” The (1993) Citizen’s Commission on the Texas Judicial System said:

"Texas has no uniform judicial framework to guarantee the just, prompt and efficient disposition of a litigant’s complaint. The framers of our Constitution deliberately designed a system to 'localize' justice, establishing a multiplicity of largely autonomous, conveniently located courts across the state. With the passage of time, the organization of the courts has become more, not less, cumbersome."

More recently (2007), the tort reform group Texans for Lawsuit Reform described the system thus:

"The Texas judicial system is complicated, inefficient, and poorly structured to handle modern litigation. Since its basic structure was created in the late 1800s, it has been expanded periodically on a purely ad hoc basis. As a result, the system is replete with anomalies and peculiarities. Problems exist at every level and extend to the administration and funding of the courts. Comprehensive reform is needed to produce greater coherence, efficiency and accountability."

In the system as described in these excerpts, there are a lot of actors. Along with everyone else in 254 counties (by far the largest number in the United States), many of them independently elected officials such as district and county clerks, there are over 3,700 judges currently working in Texas:
98 appellate judges on 16 appellate courts
453 district judges in 453 districts
129 associate judges, magistrates etc. (non-elected judges)
280 visiting judges eligible for assignment (previously elected judges)
254 constitutional county judges (not all of whom hear cases)
249 county court at law and statutory probate judges
822 justices of the peace
+1463 municipal judges (non-elected judges)
= 3,748 judges

The system is not only localized, it is administratively fragmented at the state level. Several functions that should naturally fall within the administrative office of the courts as an arm of the Supreme Court, which has constitutional responsibility for administration of the judicial branch, do not: administration of drug courts, which resides in the Office of the Governor under Ch. 469, Health & Safety Code; administration of adult probation, which resides in the Department of Criminal Justice under Ch. 509, Government Code; and certification of court interpreters, which is handled by the Department of Licensing and Regulation under Ch. 57, Government Code. The power of appointing the nine regional presiding judges, who in turn appoint visiting judges and hear recusal motions, rests with the Governor instead of with the Chief Justice or the Supreme Court. And although the Supreme Court has constitutional responsibility for the administration of the judicial branch, judicial education was legislated away from the Supreme Court in 1993, to be administered by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

The high degree of decentralization, complexity, and shared local/state responsibility within the Texas court system creates a challenge for any who would strive for greater efficiency, uniformity, or standardization. However, shared governance of the mechanics of justice is embedded in the Texas Constitution and carried forward by the Philosophy of Texas State Government: “Decisions affecting individual Texans, in most instances, are best made by those individuals, their families, and the local government closest to their communities.”

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