From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
October 2, 1998
Contact: Rick Svataro, (512) 463-0113

Senate Jurisprudence Committee Issues Recommendations to Improve Texas Court System

AUSTIN, TX. -- Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today announced recommendations for improving Texas judicial selection system, reducing court backlogs, increasing criminal fine collection and improving jury service. The new recommendations are part of a report adopted by the Senate Jurisprudence Committee and submitted to Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock October 1.

The Committee met seven times during the interim: in Austin, San Antonio, Euless, Houston, Dallas and Lubbock. The Committee heard testimony from the judiciary, district and county clerks, representatives from the Office of Court Administration, lawyers and the general public.

Senator Ellis, who chairs the Committee, expressed the need for selecting judges that are as diverse as Texas and accountable to the public. Despite projections that Texas voting age population will be 26.5 percent Hispanic and 11.7 percent African American for next months election, minorities account for only 11 percent of the Texas judiciary. The barriers to expanding diversity on the bench are largely the result of partisan sweeps and expensive campaigns, Ellis stated.

Large war chests and aggressive campaign fund raising have made it difficult for challengers and weakened public support for electing judges. Only Alabama, Montana and Nevada have more expensive judicial races than Texas.

"No Texan is well served by our current judicial selection system," said Ellis. "Judicial elections are very expensive, and candidates are forced to raise huge sums of money from attorneys who appear before them in court. We must ensure that there is not even the appearance that justice is for sale in Texas."

The report recommends that the legislature eliminate straight ticket voting in all state and county judicial races. It recommends that a $1,000 cap be placed on individual contributions to appeals court candidates and $500 cap be placed on individual contributions to trial court candidates. The report urges prohibiting contributions by political action committees in judicial races and prohibiting fund raising by unopposed incumbents.

The Committee also investigated a number of reforms that would improve Texas court system in the areas of criminal fine collection, redistricting, court backlogs, jury service and structured settlements.

While criminals are doing their time in Texas jails, they often get away with not paying their fines after they are released. A recent study revealed that counties are losing millions of dollars annually due to uncollected fines.

I am concerned that offenders are being allowed to escape paying millions of dollars in fines and, what may be worse, avoiding their full punishment, said Senator David Cain (D-Dallas), a member of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee. By increasing the ability to collect fines, courts would save taxpayers money and increase respect for the law.

The report recommends requiring that counties be notified offenders are released from jail; that fee and fine repayment or community service be made a condition for release; and that counties be given a greater incentive by the state to collect fees and court costs.

Because Texas appellate court districts have not been redrawn since the 1920s gross disparities in representation and caseloads have cropped up as the states population has grown. According to the State Auditors Office, a 292 percent disparity in caseloads exists between the intermediate appellate courts with the greatest and fewest number of cases.

The report recommends the Legislature or the Judicial Redistricting Board redraw Texas intermediate appellate court districts, based on population and caseloads. The Committee also recommends increasing appropriations for the states three busiest appellate courts to eliminate backlogs in the short term.

The Committee report also seeks ways to improve jury service and make jury selection more user friendly.

Committee recommendations include allowing jurors to take notes during trial and for the Texas Judicial Council to study the prospect of increasing juror pay to make jury service more attractive to a wider number of people.

In its supplemental charge the committee reviewed the legal duties of guardians and attorneys in the settlement of their clients claims.

The committee recommends that an attorney receiving an offer of a structured settlement be required to present the offer to the injured person. The report also suggests a number of consumer safeguards for the sale and transfer of structured settlements, should that practice be allowed in Texas.

"The quality, impartiality, and moral authority of the Texas judiciary are severely undermined by the shortcomings of the judicial election system," Ellis said. "We must work to promote a fair, diverse and accountable system of justice in Texas."