All Hat, No Cattle: Bills Proposing Big Changes for Texas Courts May Start a Discussion, but have Little Chance of Becoming Reality

Andrew Pearce

January 3, 2013

As the Texas Legislature prepares to go back into session, members have already filed nearly 350 pieces of proposed legislation, including legislation that could have a significant impact on Texas lawyers and, more specifically, Texas courts. Although commentators have concluded that most of the legislation is unlikely to become law, the proposals do stand to garner state-wide attention and, if nothing else, may advance the conversation regarding changes in the way Texas courts operate.

Senate Bill (SB) 103, filed by Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) would eliminate straight-party voting of judges in the high courts, district courts and county courts. The Austin-American Statesman speculated Sen. Patrick was motivated by the fact that Harris County voted Democrat in the past two presidential elections, but also believed the bill might make otherwise partisan voters “think a bit before casting a ballot.” Although the bill has been described as a long shot, the fact that a Republican senator has proposed the idea makes the possibility of bipartisan support more likely. It is worth noting, however, that the legislation is being proposed in the face of “a marked rise in the percentage of voters who cast ballots using the straight-ticket method,” according to Peck Young, director of Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies.

House Bill (HB) 129, filed by Rep. Richard Pena Raymond (D-Laredo) would require the judges of the two high courts to recuse themselves from a case if any party, people or groups connected to the party, the party’s lawyer or his firm, had made political contributions greater than $2,500 to the judge in the previous four years. When filing anything in the high courts, the political contributor would have to disclose his political contributions. Jordan Smith of the Austin Chronicle said the legislation was “utterly sensible,” but then joked (I think) that the legislation, if it passed, would likely leave Texas without an appeals court and is therefore “dead on arrival.”

House Joint Resolution (HJR) 37, also introduced by Rep. Raymond, proposes a constitutional amendment that would change the terms of office for district judges from four to six years. The Legislature rejected similar legislation in 2011, but not before the resolution made it to a floor vote.

Finally, Rep. Raymond’s House Bill (HB) 134 and House Joint Resolution (HJR) 36 propose abolishing the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and shifting its criminal jurisdiction to the Texas Supreme Court. Characterized as a “perennial Hail Mary” by Smith of the Austin Chronicle, the bill is predicted to stall early.

Meanwhile, the Texas Judicial Council, which is the policy making body for the Texas judiciary, unanimously passed resolutions asking the Legislature to increase judges’ salaries, establish a court technology fee to cover the cost of eFiling, and institute other measures designed to improve the efficiency of Texas courts.

In 2009, Rep. Raymond told Mary Alice Robbins of the Texas Lawyer that his goal in proposing to abolish the Court of Criminal Appeals was to “get this conversation going.” That sentiment may be true of each of the proposed bills, but the conversation does not appear likely to result in any substantive changes to Texas courts. And even though the legislation to end straight-party voting and extend the terms for district judges appears to be an effort to minimize the effect of an increasingly polarized Texas electorate that results in good judges of both parties being voted off the bench, avoiding such a reality is going to take more than just talk.