The House Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence interim report to the 88th Legislature covers issues related to the Texas-Mexico border, guardianship, specialty courts, and jurors. For more information see the full report here.

Spotlight on Recommendations

Charge 1. Monitor the agencies and programs under the Committee’s jurisdiction and oversee the implementation of relevant legislation passed by the 87th Legislature, including HB 3774 and HB 2730.

  • Increased Court Security: Following the events of a 2022 United States Supreme Court draft opinion leak, the Chair asked the Chief Justice in a public hearing if there were any protections or practices in place to ensure the integrity of their own draft opinion and work products. While the Chief Justice confirmed that this has historically not been an issue or problem in Texas, it was clear to the Committee that the Legislature should consider creating a criminal offense to hold responsible Court personnel — or any other Texan — who knowingly distributes, shares or discloses to unauthorized third parties legally protected and confidential draft judicial opinions and work products.
  • Case Level Data Collection: Currently, the Texas Judicial Council requires clerks to report standardized aggregate data monthly to the Office of Court Administration. At the district and county level, this means data is reported by county and not by court. Case level data would require clerks to report data elements that would be a turning point in judicial system transparency. Elements collected could be isolated to individual courts and types of proceedings to gauge the Texas Judiciary’s resources, efficiency, and effectiveness much more accurately. Consequently, collecting case level data would benefit both the civil and criminal justice systems.
  • Remote Proceedings: Remote proceedings have allowed for greater access to justice, higher court participant rates, and fewer default judgements. Texans should have swift and easy access to court without the addition of unnecessary burdens, and remote proceedings have shown to help eliminate those barriers. The Legislature should continue to work to improve judicial efficiency and access to justice by removing statutory barriers to remote proceedings where appropriate and consider codifying a framework and structure to provide for standard practices across the state. This recommendation also aligns with recommendations from the Texas Judicial Council.
  • Judicial Compensation: The Committee recommends the Legislature continue to make judicial compensation a priority. Texas continues to lag in the amount of compensation provided to our judges, justices, and their staff. One of the keys to an effective judiciary is exceptional judges and excellent support staff. The Judiciary is a cornerstone of our government and cannot afford to continue to lose talent due to of a lack of appropriate compensation. Specifically, the Legislature should consider increasing the base pay of starting judges — whether or not the base pay is linked to the legislative retirement amount. Additionally, the Legislature should further ensure that our state’s judges are afforded regular cost of living adjustments that will keep Texas’ judicial compensation levels not just fair, but competitive with other states.

Charge 2. Examine current caseloads and capacity issues for courts handling matters related to the Texas-Mexico border. Evaluate the preparedness of the court system to handle increases in caseloads that may result from the border crisis response and make recommendations to ensure the continued fair and efficient administration of justice in the state in addressing any increased caseloads.

  • Data Collection: OCA does not collect case-level data on OLS cases. Clerks are required to report aggregate-level data to OCA, and unfortunately that data is not separated out into OLS data. The data that OCA is able to get is primarily from arrest data through central magistration. Ultimately, the Legislature should require clerks to report this data that will ultimately aid in policy decisions and the allocation of resources.
  • Additional Funding and Resources: Recognizing the crucial role of the Judicial System to ensure the public safety of all Texans, the Legislature should continue to consider ways to ensure an efficient and effective Operation Lone Star. The Legislature must continue to support — in word and deed, with actions and resources — the local jurisdictions charged with operating Operation Lone Star, starring with administrative support, training and consultation services. To be clear, if the goals of Operation Lone Star are to be achieved — and the majority of members of this Committee believe they can and should — then the Legislature must make them a priority, including, importantly, substantially increasing the appropriations necessary to hire more personnel, including new judges and clerks, to invest in technology, and to incentivize local jurisdictions to continue to ensure that justice is neither delayed nor denied for those who find themselves in Texas Courts as part of this Operation.

Charge 3. Study potential solutions to improve the judicial efficiency of the state courts of appeals by analyzing caseloads and making appropriate recommendations.

  • Legislative Study: The Legislature should continue to monitor caseloads of the existing Courts of Appeal to ensure efficiency, access, and balance. Further, the Legislature should consider appointing an official study to look into workloads over a period of time, particularly during the post-pandemic period when caseloads have resumed to normal levels. The study should also include identifying which courts see the highest numbers of cases transferred in and out, the methodology for transferring cases, and the impact on the scope of any caselaw arising from transferred cases. Lastly, the study should help determine if the Courts of Appeals are adequately staffed and funded, including the improvement of the case management system.

Charge 4. Evaluate the use and types of guardianships in Texas and the effect of guardianship on individual rights. Study the financial costs to families related to attaining and maintaining guardianship and compare costs to those associated with guardianship alternatives, such as supported decision making.

  • Person-Centered Approaches: Since 2015, the Legislature has pursued many reforms to guardianship in Texas. These reforms are working and have made vast improvements in the guardianship process in Texas for those under guardianship, their families, and advocates alike. As the Legislature continues to work on these issues, they should prioritize ensuring that guardianships are treated as individually as possible, as there is not and should not be a one-size-fits-all solution. The Legislature has an obligation not only to ensure rights are protected, but are actively enforced.
  • Mitigating the Cost of Guardianship: The Legislature should continue to seek ways to lower the costs associated with guardianship where we are able, and continue to allow for alternatives to guardianship when efficient, practical, and are be in the best interests of Texans.

Charge 5. Study the operations of specialty courts. Determine whether additional specialty courts should be considered to address needs withing specific populations. Review specialty court methods and best practices that have been implemented for specialty courts in other states, including their impact on judicial efficiency.

  • Funding and Utilizing Specialty Courts: Specialty courts operate throughout the state and provide rigorous monitoring and supervision, along with intensive community-based treatment services that are ultimately aimed at reducing recidivism, preventing incarceration, and promoting recovery. These courts have the specific goal of diverting a defendant from the criminal justice system and ensuring they have access to treatment to help them ultimately succeed. There are over 200 specialty courts in Texas and they have shown positive results. The Legislature should continue to fund and utilize specialty courts where appropriate and where the efficiency and effectiveness of the judiciary can be improved.
  • Creating a Texas Business Court: For the last several sessions, the Legislature has considered legislation to create a specialized court to handle complex business matters. Corporations frequently incorporate in other states that have such a specialized court, and Texas is reportedly losing out on bringing more businesses to the state due to lacking a similar and specialized judicial structure. Data presented to the Committee suggests that twenty-three states have pursued some form of business court, including Delaware, Tennessee, Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. The Supreme Court of Texas, pursuant to an express recommendation of the Texas Judicial Council, was tasked with creating a pilot program to explore the creation of a business court system. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the plans for the pilot program were delayed. Post-pandemic, the Supreme Court is once again tasked with creating a pilot program. The pilot program would establish a business court program for complex business legislation and should be a part of or parallel to the existing court structure. Additionally, such a specialized business court will hold proceedings regionally so parties throughout the state have reliable access to the court without undue delay or strain. Further, such a structure would allow an opt-in option for the parties. While the Committee disagrees on the necessity of a Court, if a business court is to be created and commissioned by the Legislature, this Committee believes this recommendation is the best path forward — working within the existing court structure while still allowing for specialization and expertise for high level, high value, highly specialized cases for our Texas business and corporations. To be clear, our Committee recommends that the Legislature closely monitors the pilot program, observe which aspects work and don’t work, and implement legislation accordingly.

Charge 6. Study state laws and procedures relating to jury service eligibility, including a review of existing jury exemptions, and make recommendations to ensure the privilege, right, and duty of jury service is protected and promoted.

  • Raising Juror Pay and Employer Compensation: The Legislature should elevate jury service — recognizing such service as a precious right and privilege, and a solemn responsibility for any Texan who is blessed to be called and selected to serve. We should start with raising the amount of daily juror pay and enacting wage protections for those selected to serve. Current daily rates do not cover the costs needed to serve — sometimes not even covering the cost of courthouse parking for some jurors who are not ultimately selected to serve on a jury. Additionally, the Legislature should consider removing employment barriers that prevent Texans from being able to serve on a jury. While an employer cannot terminate an employee for missing work due to jury service, they are not required to pay for hours missed. Texas should ensure that those selected for jury service are adequately compensated, either through increasing the level of compensation for service or by adding wage protections for those selected to serve.
  • Narrowing Juror Exemptions: The Committee recommends narrowing the existing exemptions for jury service. Texas currently provides 10 exemptions for jury service. The Legislature should consider narrowing these exemptions to provide for a wider jury pool and elevate the duty of serving on a jury. We should start with doing away with the exemption available to those over 70 years of age — increasing it to 75 years of age.
  • Addressing Failures to Respond: While there are current laws on the books, including penalties, for failure to respond to a jury summons, they are rarely enforced or utilized. The Legislature should considering tightening enforcement for failures to respond.