Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gender of Judges

One the great perks of this job is the opportunity to get to know the very impressive Chief Justices of many other states. I was pleased to see some faces I recognize on the cover of the July 2010 ABA Journal, in an article called "Tipping the Scales," about the gender diversity of high courts in the south:

"Nine of the 13 state supreme courts in the South have multiple women as justices, as does the District of Columbia. Five states have three or more—the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is that state’s court of last resort on criminal matters, has four female judges. Tennessee is one of three states with a majority of women on its supreme court. Michigan and Wisconsin are the other two. Two states have no women as justices, and neither—Idaho and Indiana—is in the South."

To round out the article, here is some more information on the courts in Texas, mostly from our Profile of Appellate and Trial Judges page. (One exception, I can just tell you that 5 of the 14 intermediate appellate courts have a woman chief justice.)  On those same courts there are 33 women justices out of 80 total.  On the district bench, 124 of 440 are women.  On the county courts of law, 72 of 231 are women. And in the justice of peace courts, 278 of 822 are women.  (Note that not every judge tells us this detail, so the numbers are not quite definitive.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

eFiling and Harris County

Harris County District Clerk Loren Jackson continues to beat the drum for a free eFiling system specifically for Harris County, with a news release on June 17 and some uncritical coverage in the Houston Chronicle and Texas Lawyer.  He is absolutely right, up to a point, and quite wrong after that point. 

My office supports the Judicial Committee on Information Technology, which reports to the Supreme Court of Texas on these issues.  The major objectives of JCIT and OCA are to secure sufficient funding to transition from “pay-as-you-file” to free eFiling and support local document management systems to enable paper on demand. Courts and counties clearly have to move toward more efficient systems of moving, storing, and giving access to the information that is at the core of their business - dispute resolution.

eFiling should be free. The pay-to-file model is really geared toward private attorneys and civil cases with existing filing fees, but in the courts there are also government filers, indigent filers, self-represented filers, and criminal defense eFilers. Texas courts have had electronic filing since 2003, and in the seven years since, adoption around the state has been relatively slow, but a lot of courts and counties are on board. Handling, storing, and retrieving paper court documents remains a large and rising expense to the courts. While strong usage of eFiling would save state and local government money, an obstacle to eFiling is cost to the filers, which may range from $6 to $16 per filing.

The current model, Texas Online, also depends upon the courts using a vendor (currently NIC USA) under a contract with a separate, executive branch agency (the Department of Information Resources). This is not to say that vendor-based eFiling is the wrong idea. The processing of fees (for court costs, not convenience fees) by credit card is complex, and continuing the obligation of 24x7 help desk operations is a difficult obligation for the government staffing model (presumably Loren Jackson has thought through these complexities). But depending upon a vendor with no direct contractual link is highly problematic as a practical matter, and presents a separation of powers concern as a principled matter.

So Jackson, the JCIT and OCA all support movement away from the current business model for eFiling.  But what I envision is a free, state-supported system that provides a single portal for filing any kind of case in any Texas court from anywhere in the world. Jackson is impatient, insisting that Harris County judges and litigants demand and deserve their own free portal ahead of everyone else, and in fact to the detriment of everyone else.  The following communities, which currently use Texas Online system, are among those who stand to suffer if Harris County pulls out of the current system:  El Paso, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, San Angelo, Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin, Waco, Fort Worth, Dallas, Denton, and Tyler.  Starts to look like everyone in the state versus the good citizens of Houston. Let's work together on getting where everyone agrees we need to go.  

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bike to Work

The people in my office know that I prefer to bike to work, and usually do.  While I ride, like on the sidewalk trail along Lamar where all the cars are creeping along, I often wonder why more people don't.  The main reason I do is, I just like it - the sensation of gliding through the air, hearing birds, connected to the world and doing comfortable work that stimulates my mind, instead of sitting in an effortless bubble and resenting the other bubbles. My preferred destination on weekends and before work when I can, is Barton Springs; nothing like a ride and swim to start the day. So I mostly just like it, but the health benefits are obvious, the traffic avoidance is peaceful, parking problems and carbon imprint are nonexistent. I also enjoy knowing the geography of Austin from a bicycle, biking with friends, and even the small amount of planning that is added to my day to include everything I need - change of clothes for work, swimsuit/towel/goggles, work itself, cell phone/wallet/sunglasses/keys - in panniers and fanny pack.  Someday I'll get a trailer and do even the dog food by bike.

Many people don't live 4 miles from work, I know; (I used to ride about 8, and that was quite doable too). And many people feel more self-conscious than I about getting to work a little sweaty (or they have more complicated hair issues after wearing a helmet). But work isn't the only place you can and should bike.  All our lives we make little loops from home, to work, to the store, to the pool, to the gym, to the hike and bike trail. (A pet peeve - those who feel virtuous driving their Tahoes downtown to exercise.)  Why not bike to the gym and to the trail, and on every loop under 4 miles that doesn't involve kids or major cargo?

State government could do considerably more to promote a bicycling cultuer among state employees.  The state has wellness initiatives and every incentive to promote employee health, less traffic, and fewer parkers (porkers?).  I would certainly volunteer to evangelize - here I am - and even to coach individuals on picking a route and getting it done.  I encourage the Texas Facilities Commission to look for opportunities to provide suitable shower and changing facilities (like the legislative staff enjoys in the Robert E. Johnson Building).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Self-Represented Litigants

I first wrote about this topic in July last year, right after starting to blog. Now I am happy to report that the Texas Forum on Self-Represented Litigants and the Courts was held April 8 and 9, 2010 in Dallas at the Belo Mansion. Sponsored by the Texas Access to Justice Commission, Texas Access to Justice Foundation, Texas Legal Services Center, Office of Court Administration, and Legal Services Corporation, the Forum launched a statewide effort to provide Texas courts tools to help them deal with self-represented litigants. Over 120 participants attended, including members of the judiciary, legal services attorneys, court clerks and administrators, law librarians, and access to justice groups.  Panelists from various segments of the Texas court system discussed the challenges posed by the increasing numbers of self-represented litigants as well as some of the strategies that have been developed in Texas to address these challenges. Several speakers highlighted successful programs that have been implemented in other states, including self-help centers, distance services, limited scope representation, and training for court clerks and administrators.

The Texas Access to Justice Commission’s Special Projects Committee, which coordinated the Forum, met after the Forum to evaluate the effort and determine next steps. Based on the Committee’s recommendation, the Commission decided at its May 4 meeting:

  • The Commission will request that the Supreme Court create a statewide Task Force to develop Supreme Court approved pleading and order forms for statewide use. An initial objective will be to determine what other efforts in this regard are currently underway and what is happening on a local level throughout the state, and then to bring all of these efforts under one umbrella.
  • The Commission will establish a committee that is dedicated solely to assisted pro se issues. The committee’s charge will include:
    • Considering legislative proposals that may direct financial resources for assisted self-help programs
    • Engaging in the education of clerks, law librarians, the judiciary, and the private bar, and advising stakeholders of financial and other resources available to assist with their efforts
    • Identifying best practices and communicating those to all interested parties
    • Coordinating/Serving as statewide clearinghouse for available resources
    • Continuing to monitor and assist the development of programs on a local level.
Those interested should monitor the listserv and the Access to Justice Commission’s website for information about self-represented litigant issues and projects.
And most important (I buried the lead again), today the Office of Court Administration, Texas Access to Justice Commission, Texas Access to Justice Foundation, and Texas Legal Services Center published a manual for clerks and court personnel who work with self-represented litigants: "Legal Information vs. Legal Advice: Guidelines and Instructions for Clerks and Court Personnel Who Work with Self-Represented Litigants in Texas State Courts." It is available on our Publications, Forms and Online Information page (which has a ton of material, look under Manuals and Handbooks towards the bottom).  The manual is intended to help clerks and court personnel understand the difference between legal information and legal advice. It explains why clerks and court personnel must not give advice but should give legal information. It also contains examples of permissible and impermissible ways to answer questions from the public and a list of resources and referral information.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Legislative Proposals

Every interim the Texas Judicial Council develops a series of proposals for changes to statute that will improve the administration of justice.  In 2009, as I recall, about half of the bills we proposed were enacted, which is a pretty good batting average considering how many bills always die, and of course considering what happened on the House floor last session.  This interim we have resurrected those proposals that did not pass and begun to add more.  You can view the current list of ideas on a new page on the Judicial Council's website. Legislators and staff are encouraged to let me know if they are interested in authoring any of these ideas.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Strategic Planning

My office is in the midst of developing our next strategic plan, which is due to be turned in on June 18th.  Our current plan is already on the web if anyone is interested.  I have been developing the text for that portion of the plan labelled "External/Internal Assessment," where we have the ability to frame some issues, describe strategic initiatives, and so on.  The current draft of this portion of our new document is posted on the OCA website just below the current strategic plan, here is the link directly to my draft.  I welcome input on this document, as soon as possible.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Justice Reinvestment

I think I first heard this phrase used by Tony Fabelo at the CSG Justice Center, in reference to their work which eventually led to a national summit in January 2010, and which is summarized as "a data-driven strategy to reduce spending on corrections, increase public safety, and improve conditions in the neighborhoods to which most people released from prison return."  Their work has been with state governments in places like Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, and Nevada.

My friend and former colleague Nancy LaVigne, at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, has just launched their website to connect justice reinvestment to the local level of government (JRLL).
The JRLL model includes five obvious but critical elements that any local justice initiative should follow:
  1. Collect and analyze relevant criminal justice data: aids stakeholders in targeting interventions based on risks to public safety.
  2. Develop and implement alternative strategies: enables the county to identify interventions that address the key drivers of criminal justice costs.
  3. Document costs and potential savings: clarifies the financial impact of the criminal justice population on various agencies' budgets.
  4. Reinvest in the community and the jail: measures the impact of activities to increase savings and improve public safety.
  5. Assess the impact of reinvestment strategies: reinvestment can be focused on prevention strategies in the jail or specific neighborhoods.
I have a couple of ideas for a new species of "justice reinvestment" in Texas. The beginning point is to identify sustainable funding strategies to support the growth and performance management of problem-solving courts: drug courts, family drug courts, veterans courts, mental health courts, prostitution courts, etc.  Currently the governor's Criminal Justice Division spends about $7.3 million on this program, but recent requests for grants for new courts exceeded $10 million. The first idea is to look at reinvesting some or all of the funding that currently supports any excess capacity in the SAFP (Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility) regime.

Second, look for strategies to promote larger jurisdictions establishing problem-solving courts by persuading civil judges to transition to this new calling.  It is my belief that most or all urban areas in Texas have more judges than they need for the civil caseload, and often too few judges in the criminal or family realms.  As I noted back in January, the workload overall is only 20% civil, so if 30% of a locality's judges do civil cases, there is probably a mismatch of judicial resources.