Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht delivered the State of the Judiciary on February 6 at a joint session of the 86th Legislature at the Texas House chamber. Hecht discussed a number of issues facing the court system, asking for support on items such as response to natural disasters, bail reform, court treatment of people with mental illnesses, bolstering technology in record keeping, and help with judicial qualifications and compensation.
“Beaten but unbowed, Texas judges, clerks, administrators, and staff carried on, throughout the storm and since, in makeshift space—many at great personal sacrifice,” Hecht said, opening his remarks with stories of Hurricane Harvey recovery. “We haven’t fully recovered but we’re getting there. In my 38 years on the bench, I have never been prouder of the Texas judiciary.”
Hecht detailed Aransas County District Clerk Pam Heard and her staff’s efforts to continue operations in a damaged building even as their own homes and courthouse were destroyed. Because they covered their computers with plastic—and filed documents electronicallywith the courts—the county lost no records. He also told the story of Judge Lincoln Goodwin, Justice of the Peace in Harris County, who worked with staff to recover and dry court documentsand used an emergency order from the high courts to share a courtroom in a neighboring precinct. Court administrations need more flexibility in response to the next Harvey, Hecht said, calling for support for SB 40.
Hecht called for strengthening access to justice in a number of ways, including restoring cut funding to Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault, a program he said has cleared 11,000 cases in the past two years; and answering Gov. Greg Abbott’s call to appropriate an additional $3 million for civil legal aid services for veterans.
Hecht also expressed concern with the judicial selection process. The November elections brought on board a large number of new judges who the chief justice believes were elected because of partisan politics and not qualifications. Voters, in knowing almost nothing about candidates, throw out very good judges who happen to be on the wrong side of higher races on the ballot, he said. The chief justice called for judicial qualifications to be raised.
Of all the issues Chief Justice Hecht talked about, technology was the biggest. In a state the size of Texas, with its 254 counties dotted by few very urban areas, Texas courts “need better data on cases and dockets to operate efficiently and plan for the future.” He then described the pros of a statewide online court records public access initiative, Re:SearchTX, which allows users to see e-filing from any of the state’s courts and download them for a fee.
Hecht also talked about a program called the Public Safety Assessment, which he said can accurately predict—using demographic information—whether a defendant poses a risk of flight, violence, or recidivism. The technology, he said, can help cut down on the amount of non-violent indigent defendants held in jail because they cannot afford bail—which then falls on the taxpayers to the tune of $1 billion each year and violates fundamental constitutional rights, he said. It also can cut down on the number of violent defendants released on bail. But judges are denied such a tool that can help make more informed decisions, Hecht said.
That discussion hit an emotional high point when Hecht described the role a lack of better technology played in the death of a law enforcement officer Damon Allen, whose family was in attendance at the House. On Thanksgiving Day 2017, Department of Public Safety Trooper Allen was killed outside of Fairfield while sitting in his car checking the driver’s license of a man he pulled over for speeding. While Allen was running a scan, the driver approached and shot and killed him. The driver was released on bond the same day. Just four months earlier, the same man led officers on a high-speed chase, during which he rammed a deputy’s vehicle, injuring the deputy. Despite being charged with evading arrest, aggravated assault of a public servant, and reckless driving, he was out on bail that time after paying about 10 percent of his bail. Hecht urged the Legislature to pass the Damon Allen Act, which he said would give judges more information and risk factors of a defendant before setting bail.
Hecht asked for support in other areas before summing up the State of the Judiciary, including a 15 percent increase in judicial pay, the Supreme Court’s Children’s Commission, diverting children from the criminal justice system, funding for training judges on mental health issues, and bolstering the monitoring of guardianship cases in all Texas courts.
“The Texas Judiciary is committed to upholding the law, to getting every case right, to operating efficiently, to searching out and adopting improvements and reforms, to making all our processes advance the precious cause of justice,” Hecht said.
Look for the entire speech in the March issue of the Texas Bar Journal.