Texas Supreme Court advisory
Contact: Osler McCarthy, staff attorney/public information
CHIEF JUSTICE HECHT PUSHES COURTHOUSE SECURITY,
OTHER REFORMS FOR TEXAS JUDICIARY
In his second State of the Judiciary address Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht urged legislators Wednesday to redouble courthouse security across Texas and provide money to protect judges from known threats as well as changes in the law to protect their personal information.
Speaking to state senators and representatives in the House chamber, Chief Justice Hecht also urged them to revamp procedures to assure judicial salaries remain competitive and in line with inflation; to keep legal-aid financing a priority; to close the “justice gap” between people who can afford lawyers and those who cannot; and to implement reforms to the bail system to assure bail “must not extend beyond its justifications.”
Hecht introduced Travis County Criminal District Judge Julie Kocurek, who was ambushed in November 2015 outside her Austin home and advocated for money to protect judges who have been threatened, as Kocurek was before she was shot, and to keep personal information about judges confidential. Noting that she returned to her courtroom rather than retire, Hecht said: “With judges like Judge Kocurek serving the people of Texas every day, I am proud to report to you that the state of the Texas judiciary is strong.”
He advocated reforms proposed by the Texas Judicial Council, a policymaking body, embodied in Senate Bill 42 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. “I urge its passage,” the chief justice said, “and I hope you will entitle it the ‘Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017.’”
Federal prosecutors have since indicted suspected assailants.
Hecht also advocated Texas Judicial Council proposals for more effective treatment for criminal defendants who suffer mental illness and for reforming procedures by which minor offenders are assessed fines and fees. “Most people ticketed just paid the fine and court costs. Others needed a little time and were put on payment plans for an extra fee,” Hecht said.
But more than $1 billion was collected and 16 percent – offenders in about 640,000 cases – were jailed for failing to pay fines and fees involving minor cases. “Jailing criminal defendants who cannot pay their fines and court costs – commonly called debtors’ prison – keeps them from jobs, hurts their families, makes them dependent on society, and costs the taxpayers money,” he told the Legislature. “Most importantly, it is illegal under the United States Constitution.”
Hecht said such fines and fees even include fees for making a payment to satisfy a fine. Hecht also:
¶ Proposed a “new, data-based, fact-driven approach” to implement biennial recommendations by the Judicial Compensation Commission for judicial salaries in Texas. “All we need is to agree on a simple mathematical formula to use from now on,” he said, “then each session, just plug in the numbers. Tie legislative retirement to the formula, or not. None of it would ever have to be debated again. A formula now would settle the matter once and for all.”
Hecht said Texas judicial salaries rank 27th among all states and last among the six largest states.
“Judge Kocurek reminds us again that judges serve at considerable personal sacrifice, including inadequate compensation,” he said. “ Judicial pay is a topic of almost every State of the Judiciary address. I would like to change that.”
¶ Urged continued appropriations for legal-aid assistance for the poor. “Legal aid helps the poor be productive and adds to the economy’s bottom line. That’s why national CEOs and general counsel support access to justice initiatives – they’re good for employees, good for customers, good for communities and good for business. “And besides all that, it’s the right thing to do. As much as has been done, only 10 percent of the civil legal needs are actually being met.”
¶ Urged continued support for the Texas State Law Library in one stroke that would help people who cannot afford lawyers’ assistance, a broad endeavor for which the Texas Supreme Court appointed a commission – the so-called justice gap commission – to recommend specific ways to make legal services more affordable. The state law library offers free services to lawyers and non-lawyers alike. “If justice were food, too many would be starving,” he said. “If it were housing, too many would be homeless. If it were medicine, too many would be sick. If it were faith, too many houses of worship would be closed.”
¶ Promoted a statewide system for making court records available online. Noting the Legislature created the Judicial Committee on Information Technology years ago, Hecht said the committee was ready to propose statewide records access, protecting those records from abusive “data mining” and the means to support counties in creating a state system. “A statewide system will also provide more information about how the work of courts is changing, what kinds of cases the courts are handled and what improvements can be made. In planning for the future, this information is crucial.”
¶ Tackled the perennial judicial-selection issue, addressing partisan presidential voting that has doomed good judges caught election moods. “These kinds of partisan sweeps are common, with judicial candidates at the mercy of the top of the ticket. “Such partisan sweeps are demoralizing to judges and disruptive to the legal system. But worse than that, when partisan politics is the driving force, and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty.”