Although similar versions failed twice before, a judicial system overhaul bill meant to unify the “patchwork quilt that is the Texas court system” is advancing through the Texas Legislature this session with good chance of passage, says Carl Reynolds, administrative director of the Office of Court Administration, who worked on a task force several years ago that helped identify reforms.

Senate Bill 1717, authored by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, passed the Senate on April 26. On May 5 it reported out of a House committee with six minor amendments, but the committee has yet to distribute its report. The judicial-overhaul bill could die unless the House races to meet deadlines next week.

The massive bill — 10 sections and more than 100 pages — includes several significant changes that would allow courts to conduct business with fewer delays and create uniform rules and definitions for county courts-at-law, according to S.B. 1717.

“There’s basically 254 different little court systems across Texas,” says Reynolds, referring to the 254 Texas counties following different court rules in their county courts-at-law. He notes, “It would be a much better, more accessible system for lawyers and pro se litigants if it weren’t needlessly complicated.”

For example, in different counties, the jurisdictional limits are different for courts-at-law. The courts-at-law follow their own local court rules and use different definitions and names for court personnel, says Gary Harger, a former judge working as a temporary OCA staff attorney this legislative session. Lawyers practicing in multiple counties must constantly learn how new courts do business.

Duncan didn’t return two messages seeking comment.

Transfers

One of the important changes, meant to make courts more efficient, would make it easier for counties with at least two district courts to transfer cases between the courts. Also, it allows district judges in the same county to exchange benches, so one judge could preside in a second judge’s court if that judge were out sick or had been recused from a case. Current law allows larger counties with at least five district courts to do both.

Harger says courts need more efficiency at a time when docket loads are increasing with the rising population. The recession and resulting budget deficit makes it impossible to create more courts.

“The way you deal with the increased population and increased case load is to be more efficient,” Harger says.

Uniformity

Another major provision would create uniform functions, rules and definitions for county courts-at-law. Harger says there are 230 county courts-at-law across Texas, created when the Legislature passed separate legislation authorizing each county’s courts-at-law. S.B. 1717 would repeal county-specific statutes that refer to a county by name and set out rules for its courts-at-law. S.B. 1717 would replace the repealed statutes with one uniform set of rules and definitions.

The bill increases the jurisdictional limit for most county courts-at-law, but it exempts some from that heightened cap. Current law sets the upper limit at $100,000 for many county courts-at-law. The bill changes that cap to $200,000. However, Harger says for 59 county courts-at-law in Texas, current law sets jurisdictional limits higher than $200,000. S.B. 1717 exempts those courts from the $200,000 cap, instead allowing the courts to keep their current caps.

Reynolds says a bill similar to S.B. 1717 failed during the 2009 legislative session, because some stakeholders voiced opposition to the jurisdiction limits. That’s why S.B. 1717 includes the exception, Reynolds says.

However, the bill does instruct the OCA to study those 59 courts to determine the feasibility of converting them into district courts.

Personnel

Some of the other provisions in S.B. 1717 would ask the Texas Supreme Court to create new rules of procedure for justices of the peace, who preside over justice courts and small claims courts. Harger says the bill would merge those two functions into one, so that justices of the peace would hear all small claims within justice court, and the justice courts would operate under rules and procedures more similar to current small claims courts.

The bill repeals laws referencing masters, magistrates and referees, replacing those laws with an S.B. 1717 provision setting uniform rules, definitions and procedures for associate judges — the new title for what are currently masters, magistrates and referees. Harger says S.B. 1717 seeks conformity to lessen confusion about the position titles that different types of courts use. Also, bill sets uniform rules for associate judges’ qualifications, compensation, termination, their duties and other administrative details. S.B. 1717′s provisions about associate judges would apply to criminal and civil cases in district courts and statutory county courts, as well as all statutory probate courts and juvenile courts.

The bill would allow presiding judges of the nine administrative judicial regions to hire staff attorneys. Harger says many counties hire staff attorneys for their district courts, but smaller counties can’t afford them. S.B. 1717 allows a presiding judge of an administrative judicial region to hire a staff attorney to help those smaller counties. For example, the staff attorney would help brief a small-county district judge on points of law for an upcoming case.

The bill also would create a Judicial Committee for Additional Resources to assist courts with big cases or unusual events like hurricanes.

S.B. 1717 also includes many other minor changes to current statutes.

Amendments

According to committee meeting minutes, members of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee on May 5 approved six amendments, which would lift some restrictions for visiting judges, including how much time a judge has to wait after retiring to be a visiting judge, create procedures for listing vexatious litigants on the OCA website, and make other minor changes.

Next Steps

If the bill passes, implementing its provisions would cost an estimated $1.4 million per year, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

The next hurdles S.B. 1717 must clear include three readings in the Texas House, which have yet to be scheduled.

Unless the House meets looming deadlines next week, the judicial-overhaul bill could die. For example, the committee report must come out by May 21 before the House can schedule debate. Committee clerk Kari King says she’s working today to finalize the report.

Afterwards, the House Calendar Committee must choose a calendar for S.B. 1717. Sunday is the deadline for Senate bills to be scheduled on the daily calendar, and Monday is the deadline for Senate bills to go on the local and consent calendar.

May 25 is the final, absolute deadline: if the House hasn’t passed S.B. 1717 by then, it’s dead.

If the House passed the bill, it would likely move to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members who would iron out the differences in the versions that passed each chamber.