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February 20, 2007 (512) 463-0300

CHIEF JUSTICE DELIVERS STATE OF THE JUDICIARY ADDRESS

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Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson tells a joint session of the Legislature what it can do to improve the courts in Texas. Sitting to his left are (l-to-r) Senators Jeff Wentworth and Kel Seliger and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

(AUSTIN) -- Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace Jefferson addressed a joint session of the Legislature today, telling lawmakers what they need to do to ensure a strong, competent justice system for the future. Jefferson began by thanking legislators for passing a judicial pay raise last session, which has increased the tenure of the some of the state's best judges. While judicial turnover may be less of a concern than in past sessions, Jefferson said the state is still facing some challenges with respect to a fair, efficient court system.

One trend that bears watching, said Jefferson, is the increasing number of civil cases that are being decided by private arbitrators. While many Texans look to the private sector for a swift resolution, Jefferson said there is a social cost to the state. "They opt out of our courts because they believe the private sector offers a simplified, streamlined process, a quick resolution of their disputes at an efficient price, and a decision maker with specialized expertise," he said. "When citizens flee our justice system, we lose the public component of justice." The state can bring citizens back into the state system by streamlining the court system, combining or redefining judicial districts, and allowing more specialization in district courts.

Other improvements necessary for the state judiciary, said Jefferson, include better identification and services for mentally ill defendants, and a state innocence commission that seeks to identify and exonerate innocent Texans serving prison time for crimes they did not commit.

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NFL Rookie of the Year and former UT standout Vince Young signs autographs for young fans in the Senate Chamber.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst appeared with a number of Senators, including Hidalgo Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa and Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jane Nelson, to unveil legislation that would put automatic defibrillators in every public school in the state. Dewhurst said that of the 1300 high schools in Texas, 600 already have automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) on hand, but that all 6000 public schools in Texas should have not only at least one AED but also the modicum of training needed to know how to operate one. "The bottom line is this: AEDs save lives. Any trained employee will be able to do," he said.

AEDs are fully automated devices capable of detecting heart rate and rhythm and administering the appropriate amount of electric shock to restore normal heart function. Senate Bill 7, authored by Hinojosa, would cost about $16 million to equip each Texas school with an AED and to train a staffer how to use one. Much of this money, said Dewhurst, will come from private companies and citizens who are interested in saving children's lives.

Senator Royce West filed a bill today that could make crimes committed against the homeless hate crimes. Senate Bill 536 would make crimes against a homeless person hate crimes, and therefore subject to enhanced penalties, if the crime that is committed against the person is motivated by their homeless status. West said that since 1999, Texas has seen 36 violent hate crimes committed against homeless people, with six of those ending in death. He says it is time the state extended special protection to some of its most vulnerable citizens. "Homeless persons are not second-class citizens; they are simply citizens who have found themselves without a roof over their heads. Homelessness could happen to any of us," said West.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, February 21, at 11:00 a.m.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's audio and video archive pages.

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