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Two courts would be merged, one would be divided and seven would lose or gain justices under the Texas Supreme Court’s recommendations for addressing problems in the state’s mid-level appellate courts. The redistricting plan, released on Dec. 17, will be sent to the Legislature for consideration in the 2003 session. Texas Government Code �74.022 requires the high court to assess the need for changes in the appeals courts and to report its recommendations to the regular legislative session in the third year after the federal census. Although the law requires the Supreme Court to make recommendations with regard to redistricting, the Legislature isn’t required to adopt what the court recommends. Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips says the appeals courts have not undergone a comprehensive redistricting since 1927. “I think whenever you start reducing judicial strength in certain areas, that is where you draw opposition,” says state Sen. Robert Duncan, a Lubbock Republican on the Senate Jurisprudence Committee. The Supreme Court’s recommendations would beef up some courts while strengthening others. Key changes being proposed include the consolidation of the 1st and 14th courts of appeals in Houston and the creation of a new appellate court in the Rio Grande Valley. The 13th Court would remain in Corpus Christi with three justices, and a new three-justice 14th Court would be established in Edinburg. While the Supreme Court did not recommend a change in the total number of justices on the appeals courts, the plan calls for a redistribution of those 80 positions. The two consolidated courts in Houston would gain a justice, as would the 9th Court in Beaumont. The 5th Court in Dallas would gain two justices. However, four courts – Austin’s 3rd Court, San Antonio’s 4th Court, Amarillo’s 7th Court and El Paso’s 8th Court – each would lose a justice. Phillips says the Supreme Court wants to equalize the workload for the appeals courts so that cases don’t have to be transferred. “Our goal is to have the districts close enough that we don’t have to transfer cases,” he says. The court noted in the recommendations that it transferred 865 cases, or 7 percent of the 11,984 cases filed in fiscal year 2002. If the parties request it, appeals court justices have to go to the court from which a case was transferred to hear arguments, resulting in travel expenses totaling $34,665 last year, the court reported. Another goal, Phillips says, is to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction in 22 counties now in two or more appellate districts. Because of the overlapping, some attorneys have been able to choose the appellate court in which they want to bring an appeal, he says. To fix the problems, the court has recommended that district lines be redrawn significantly for some courts. The 11th Court in Eastland would expand from 23 to 55 counties, and the 6th Court in Texarkana would go from 19 to 26 counties. The 8th Court in El Paso would gain two counties for a total of 24. Nine courts would see the size of their districts decreased. Under the proposal, the 3rd Court would lose seven counties – including Bell County, home to Ken Law, chief justice-elect of the Austin court. Law, a former clerk on the 3rd Court, says he will oppose the recommendations that the 3rd Court lose one justice and portions of its district. “I knew I was going to have some challenges when I got elected; I just didn’t know they were going to be handed to me before I got there,” Law, who was elected in November, says. He says the 3rd Court hears all the administrative appeals, which typically have a larger record and take more time than other types of cases. The Supreme Court also recommended that nine of the 14 counties be cut from the district for the two Houston courts and that the 4th Court in San Antonio’s district go from 32 counties to 17. Other courts that would lose counties include the 5th Court in Dallas, decreasing from seven to five; the 2nd Court in Fort Worth, decreasing from 12 to five; the 7th Court in Amarillo, decreasing from 46 to 36; the 9th Court in Beaumont, decreasing from 11 to nine; the 10th Court in Waco, decreasing from 16 to 15; and the 12th Court in Tyler, decreasing from 18 to 12. Sam Nuchia, a justice on the 1st Court, says he thinks it’s highly unlikely that the Legislature will approve the plan next year. “These are heavy-duty political decisions that make it difficult for the state to do this,” Nuchia says. “It certainly makes more people mad than it does happy,” says Scott Brister, chief justice of the 14th Court. The Supreme Court has had little luck in the past convincing state lawmakers to make recommended changes. Bill Willis, the Supreme Court’s executive assistant, says Phillips testified before a legislative committee in 1999 on the need for redistricting the appeals courts, but no bills were introduced to enact it. “The fact that the court has come out with a proposal is encouraging,” Duncan says, adding that the court’s plan might serve as a catalyst for the Legislature to address judicial redistricting. To be approved, a plan has to maintain the status quo while providing ways to handle increasing caseloads, he says. Nuchia says he is not adamantly opposed to the court’s new plan but doesn’t think it’s a great idea to combine the two Houston courts. Earlier this year, Brister proposed just such a merger. “I think it makes no sense to have two courts over the same jurisdiction,” he says. The Houston courts handle almost 25 percent of all the appeals filed in the state, Brister says. Richard Barajas, chief justice of the 8th Court in El Paso, says he doesn’t like the recommendation that one justice be cut from his court. But he adds, “I would reluctantly go along with it if it would alleviate the need to transfer cases from court to court to court.” Phil Johnson, chief justice-elect on the 7th Court in Amarillo, also says he will be disappointed if the court loses a justice. “But we’re in line with the Supreme Court if they think that’s best for the state,” Johnson says. “We’re not second-guessing the Supreme Court.” Johnson says if the plan is approved, the Legislature would have to determine how and when the courts would be reduced.

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