State's Trial Court System Comes Under Scrutiny
AUSTIN - The Senate Jurisprudence Committee met today, March 27, 2002, at the state capitol, to discuss the committee's Interim Charge #4, to study and make recommendations for improving the structure of the state's trial court system. Committee chairman, Sen. Royce West of Dallas, stated that this subject of judicial reapportionment has been a critical issue longer than he has been in the Senate.
Interim Charge #4 calls for changes including, but not limited to improving the quality, cost-effectiveness, and uniformity of the visiting judge program; devising objective criteria to be used by the Legislature to determine when and where additional trial courts should be created; and clarifying jurisdictional conflicts between courts.
Chief Justice Tom Phillips of the Texas Supreme Court testified on jurisdictional court conflicts between districts. He insisted that there was no public policy justification for having a separate statutory county court and a district court.
A series of panels of judges followed, with each panel addressing the charge. Panel two: Judges Olen Underwood, B.B. Schraub, John Ovard, David Peeples, Darrell Hester, Jeff Walker, and Stephen Ables, both praised and criticized the Texas visiting judge program. The pressure of heavy dockets and judicial vacancies are two reasons that courts look for help from visiting judges. Judges who serve outside or their district earn more money. However, urban judges sometimes feel unwelcome when visiting rural areas, creating an ill-proportioned shuffle between visiting judges.
Another concern is that with 25% of the state's judicial budget goes to the visiting judge program, visiting judges are displeased with earning only around 85% of what a normal trial court judge earns. They earn even less, of course, in rural areas.
One suggestion for the question of whether additional trial courts should be created was to expand the support staff. A panel of Judges Orlinda Naranjo, Jimmy White, Richard Bosworth, Neil Caldwell, and Larry Wagenbach echoed this sentiment as well as suggesting an increase in general jurisdiction.
County Judges Giles Dalby, Gene Terry, Cletis Millsap, along with Jim Allison of the Texas Association of County Judges and Commissioners, argued that the committee should stress further utilization of constitutional county courts to free jurisdictional conflicts between courts, as well as supporting the creation of additional district courts.
Also testifying were several panels of non-judges. One included Jerry Benedict, Administrative Director of the Office of Court Administration and Chuck Demos, Manager of the Office of the Texas Comptroller.
Also appearing before the committee were Joseph Martinez and Betty Blackwell of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association; Ray Sumrow of the Texas District and Counties Attorneys' Association; and Paulette Burks and Becky Williams of the Texas District and County Clerks Association.
Sumrow spoke of mismanagement of time, funds, and resources by district and county judges. He estimated that the courthouses are only being used 20 percent of the time and that using them to their full potential would be a simple solution.
"I want to bring new energy to this issue, and hopefully a new perspective," West said. "I know it's the same old soup warmed over, but I want to take a look at it and see if there's a new ingredient that we can add."
The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair.
Legislature Takes Another Step Towards Higher Education Funding
AUSTIN - The Joint Interim Committee on Higher Education Excellence Funding met today, March 27, 2002, at the state capitol, to review current higher education funding formulas and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's procedures and recommendations regarding current formulas.
The committee is co-chaired by Senator Steve Ogden and Representative Robert Junell. Senate members of the committee include Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Senator Chris Harris, Senator John Whitmire, and Senator Ken Armbrister. Texas House of Representatives members include Representative Helen Giddings, Representative Jim McReynolds, Representative Senfronia Thompson, and Representative Irma Rangel.
Several members of the committee stated that they felt that more funds may not necessarily be the answer to current funding challenges. The answer may lie in restructuring the application of funds, possibly with a new formula. Senator Robert Duncan, a non-member, was also present and pointed out that there simply can't be one formula to fit all universities needs.
The Legislative Budget Board's Higher Education Team Manager Pat Francis laid out the formula for funding institutional enhancement, along with non-formula biennial appropriations for higher education excellence.
Representative Junell had challenged school administrators to bring suggestions and they responded. University of Houston Chancellor Arthur Smith reported that university funds were being spent wisely, and stated that further funding will help University of Houston to achieve their goals, and fulfill needs for continuing to be the most diverse university in the country. Smith suggested that moving more Texas universities including University of Houston toward the Tier 1 level is a true path to excellence.
David Smith, Interim Chancellor at Texas Tech University, also testified, thanking the committee for past excellence funding support. He and David Schmidley, president of Texas Tech University, sought funding to expand Texas Tech's research prowess in health and science.
The University of North Texas was represented by Chancellor Alfred Hurley, who stated his hopes for continued funding. Chancellor Hurley said his goals were to create a solid engineering department, have the university reach Tier 1 status, and, like the University of Houston and Texas Tech, improve the university's research programs.
Dan Burck, Chancellor at the University of Texas, testified that while he supported funding of universities such as Texas Tech and North Texas, the committee should not neglect the flagship universities University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. He, along with representatives from UT satellite campuses, made comparisons to the University of California system of statewide campuses. He stated that the University of Texas at Austin and its satellite campuses were receiving lower federal funds. Therefore, the University of Texas system is seeking excellence funding as well.
Chairmen Ogden, who represents the district in which Texas A&M is located, and Senador Armbrister, representing the district in which Southwest Texas State University is located, both appeared to show their personal interest in fairness throughout higher education excellence funding.
The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair.