At the invitation of Rep. Brooks Landgraf, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht delivered his 2015 State of the Judiciary on Feb. 18. Legislators, fellow judges, and citizens packed the House of Representatives to hear the address, which touched on judicial funding, truancy issues, and e-filing, among other topics.
Access to justice was a key element in Hecht’s remarks. Citing a “justice gap,” he stressed the importance of providing services to the poor as well as middle class citizens and small businesses that struggle with the cost of legal work. One solution, he noted, is to encourage young lawyers to provide reduced rates and to look at law school models to help them to do so. “This week, I will ask the Supreme Court to convene a select group of representatives of the courts, the law schools, the State Bar, the practicing lawyers, and the legal aid and public services communities,” he said. “Their mission will be to consider ways to encourage interested law students, after their second year of law school, to devote their practice to providing legal services at more affordable rates.”
Hecht also talked about the legal needs of veterans, noting that the battles they face when coming home—including delayed benefits, job scarcity, and foreclosures—can be as real a threat to a veteran’s survival as the enemies faced in the field. Hecht announced that the Texas Supreme Court is requesting $4 million for the next biennium to help provide legal aid to veterans. “Our military cannot return from risking their lives in defense of our freedoms and values, only to find that the justice system they fought for has left them behind,” he said. “Their access to justice must be assured, and I urge your consideration of our request.”
Additionally, he discussed the partnership between the Legislature and the Judiciary and noted that since 2008, the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit established by the Court of Criminal Appeals has worked to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s criminal justice system. Texas, he said, has exonerated more defendants than any other state. He added that one way to ensure that only the guilty are convicted is to uphold the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright. Both the Texas Judicial Council and the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, he said, have called for investments from the state for indigent criminal defense, as well as support for expanding public defenders’ offices and assigned counsel systems. “Efficiency is important to the courts,” Hecht said, “but always the most important thing is to have the time and resources to get every case right.”
Hecht also touched on challenges the Judiciary is facing, including the protection of the elderly and incapacitated from guardianship abuse, the judicial selection process, and the differences in pay between public and private sector jobs.
Following the address, Hecht joined Texas Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Sarah Davis, Randy Chapman, executive director of Texas Legal Services Center, and veteran and legal aid client Mick Engnehl for a press conference focused on Texas Access to Justice.
View a Storify summary of Hecht’s speech and press conference, along with Twitter commentary, here.