The Texas Senate has approved a new statewide appeals court. Critics argue that this is another attempt to limit the power of Democrats.
The Texas Supreme Court in 2020. A Texas Senate bill would create a new state-wide appeals court under the Supreme Court that critics say would remove the jurisdiction of a Democratic majority court of Travis County. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
The Texas Supreme Court in 2020. A Texas Senate bill would create a new state-wide appeals court under the Supreme Court that critics say would remove the jurisdiction of a Democratic majority court of Travis County.
Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
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The Texas Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a new state-wide appeals court that would hear cases of state-wide significance – including those challenging the laws of the state, the constitution or when the state or its agencies are sued.
Currently, when such cases are referred to the intermediate appeal level, they are primarily heard by the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeal. The judges of this court are elected by the voters of Travis County with democratic leanings. The Senate Bill 1529, however, would send cases to the new appeals court whose judges would be elected by voters statewide – an electorate who would distort the Republican.
Some of the state’s most high-profile cases could be affected by this proposed tribunal. Bill’s author, Senator Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said recent lawsuits surrounding Governor Greg Abbott’s emergency pandemic orders are examples of the types of litigation the proposed tribunal would have skill.
Critics say the proposed new court is a Republican attempt to take the jurisdiction of these cases away from Democrats.
The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals has five Democrats and one Republican. Currently, all elected judges statewide are Republicans, including the Texas Supreme Court – and the proposed court is likely to be Republican as well.
“Since [3rd Court of Appeals] deals with the problems facing the state government, it is a thorn on the side of the Republican Party, ”said Mark P. Jones, political science researcher at Rice University, in an interview. “And so by shifting that to a statewide election where the Republicans have the edge, they could, quite possibly, go from a Democratic majority … to a [5-0] Republican advantage. “
Huffman argues that she drafted the bill to promote consistency – not for partisan reasons.
“The new court has five judges elected statewide, so all Texans have a voice in electing those who decide matters of state-wide significance,” he said. she said Tuesday in the Senate. “It is important for judges adjudicating cases of state-wide importance to familiarize themselves with specialized case law in order to provide consistent decisions to litigants of the state. “
SB 1529 passed the Senate in an 18-13 vote on Wednesday and is heading to Texas House, which must also approve it before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for signing.
“These cases have statewide significance because they can change the policy set for Texas at the state level by their elected officials,” Huffman said Tuesday. “These cases also typically involve complex and nuanced legal issues such as sovereign immunity, constitutional law, and administrative law.”
Critics say the Texas Supreme Court, whose judges are elected statewide, already exists as a safeguard against district appeals court rulings in lawsuits that have statewide implications , which makes the creation of a new tribunal unnecessary.
Currently, a case heard by a district appeals court can be appealed and referred to the Texas Supreme Court. This proposed court would take regional appellate courts out of the equation – when dealing with matters of state-wide significance – with the proposed state-wide court taking those cases. The Texas Supreme Court would still handle appeals against the new court’s rulings.
However, Huffman said the Texas Supreme Court does not hear a large number of cases. She also said the proposed tribunal would ensure expertise on major legal issues that are of statewide significance, as that would be the goal of judges.
Democrats on Tuesday raised constitutional concerns with the bill, asking whether the legislature has the power to create an appeals court with state-wide jurisdiction, overlapping the current district system. Huffman maintains that it is.
“We’ll have to see you in court on this one,” said Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas.
Darlene Byrne, Chief Justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals and Democrat, said in an interview that she thought the bill was “bad policy and bad for state case law.”
Byrne also said the new structure would promote big campaigns.
“I don’t know of a Supreme Court race that costs less than a million dollars per candidate,” she said. “So this new statewide tribunal is going to be mega-big donors pumping in a lot of money to influence the justice system. And I thought we were trying to get away from it – but apparently not.
Linda Thomas, former Republican chief justice of the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, said she believed the bill was unnecessary.
“As a retired judge, I think it is a bit dishonest and in some ways insulting for sitting judges in this state to indicate that they are not capable of handling cases. complex, ”Thomas said.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed two amendments to the bill – one that would increase the salaries of new judges to be the same as those of the Supreme Court, and another to clarify the wording of the bill.
Originally, Huffman introduced the state court of appeals bill alongside Senate Bill 11 – a bill that would have halved the number of appellate courts in the State and redesigned the “mega courts”. Experts projected that this would result in the creation of five Republican-dominated courts and two Democratic-dominated courts.
However, the senator withdrew the bill last week after hours of testimony from judges, most of whom said the problems alleged by the bill were overblown and the proposal was rushed without adequate input. Huffman said in a statement that “since the 87th Parliament concluded its work at the end of May, time does not allow Senate Bill 11 to go any further in this session’s legislative process.” .
Huffman did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Michael Gomez, an El Paso County deputy prosecutor, spoke out against SB 1529 at a committee hearing on April 1, saying the bill takes power from local courts and removes accountability.
“Our appeals court is more than capable of handling cases in which the state is involved and has been doing so for over 100 years,” Gomez said. “The creation of a new appeals court would only create an unnecessary cost to taxpayers to allow state agencies to have an advantage on the ground in a user-friendly forum.”
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