Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the courts

The devastation in the Houston area from Hurricane Harvey has extended to the state and local court systems, which have effectively been shut down.  State courthouses in Harris County, Texas are closed all week, and several other counties are scrambling to shift proceedings to available venues.  The federal courts in the Southern District of Texas also suspended operations for several days, a major development given that the district receives more than 14,000 filings a year.  The Eastern District of Texas and Western District of Louisiana also closed courthouses in light of the hurricane.

In the wake of real tragedy along Harvey’s path, the inconvenience of a closed courthouse is admittedly relatively minor.  But as those in the Gulf Coast begin the long process of reconstructing their communities, an operational and fully functioning court system will be a welcome development.

 

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Two extremes along the spectrum of judicial professionalism

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown was recognized with the 2017 American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the Ninth Circuit.  Judge Brown has served on the bench for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon since 1999.  Cribbing from the press release:

Brown is president of the 9th Circuit District Judges Association, speaks frequently on programs for new trial judges, and currently serves on the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference. She is a past member and officer of the Gus. J. Solomon American Inn of Court, has served as chair of the Oregon State Bar Uniform Civil and Criminal Jury Instructions Committees and the 9th Circuit Jury Instructions and Jury Trial Improvement Committees, and is a founding member of Oregon Women Judges in conjunction with Oregon Women Lawyers and the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society.

While working full-time as a 911 operator, Brown earned her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. Attending law school at night, she earned a J.D. from Northwestern School of Law (now Lewis & Clark Law School). She served as law clerk to Multnomah County Circuit Judge John C. Beatty, Jr.

Congratulations to Judge Brown on a well-deserved honor.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, something far less than honor was falling on Houston Justice of the Peace Hilary Green, who was suspended by the Texas Supreme Court amid allegations that she engaged in sexting in the courtroom, hired prostitutes, used her bailiff to buy drugs, and brought home marijuana seized from a defendant.

Green’s lawyer, Chip Babcock, responded to the suspension by noting that Green had been reelected many times by the voters.  “She’s very popular in the precinct,” he said.

Sigh.

 

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras

Thanks to recent state legislation, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will began posting video of oral arguments online later this year. The legislation may also open the door for the state’s highest court for criminal matters to broadcast some oral arguments live.

The members of the court do not sound particularly thrilled about the move, although they are trying to maintain a neutral stance now that the legislation has gone through.  Said Presiding Judge Sharon Keller: “We decided years ago that we don’t want cameras in courtroom, but a lot of those judges are gone now, and I don’t know what the new judges think. But it does seem to be the wave of the future.”

Former Texas Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson strongly supported the move, which also increases pressure on the United States Supreme Court to permit video recording of its oral arguments.

Continue reading “Texas Court of Criminal Appeals introduces courtroom cameras”

El Paso to convert civil court into family court to combat backlog

El Paso County, Texas will convert one of its existing civil courts into a family court in 2019, in order to combat a significant backlog of family cases.  The county is currently operating with 1.5 fewer full time family court judges than the number recommended by the state court administrator.  It receives about 16,000 family court filings each year.

This is an excellent example of an interdependent court system engaging in proactive planning to combat resource deficiencies.  The county knows that it is likely to receive many more family court cases than civil cases in the coming years, and cannot reasonably expect to receive more help in the form of full-time judges.  The change both promotes efficient and effective administration of justice, and signals to the resource providers in the state legislature the need for more judgeships.

 

Texas legislature passes bill designating attacks on judges as hate crimes

The bill would make attacks on judges and police officers–whether verbal or physical–a hate crime in the state.  “Terroristic threats” could carry a two-year prison sentence, a simple assault could lead to up to 20 years in prison, and assault leading to serious bodily injury could be punishable by 99 years to life in prison.

The bill now advances to Governor Greg Abbott for signature.

Texas House passes court security bill

The Texas House of Representatives has given preliminary approval to a bill that would create a judicial security division and would fund training for court security.  The bill was named to honor Judge Julie Kocurek, who was severely injured after being shot outside her home in 2015.  Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht pushed for the bill’s passage during his State of the Judiciary speech in February.

Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access

For the past five years, Texas’s Office of Court Administration has worked to develop a statewide online database of court filings. The database, called re:SearchTX, covers all 254 counties in the state and is intended to provide a unified, centralized system for access to court filings, similar to the PACER system used by the federal courts. Texas Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has advocated for the new system, noting in particular its ability more quickly and inexpensively to self-represented litigants.

But a smooth launch of re:SearchTX has been stymied by the local courts themselves. And now a bill has been filed in the state House that would allow individual counties to opt out of the system, radically weakening its utility.

Continue reading “Intra-court feud brewing in Texas over online records access”