The Ellis County Commissioners Court faces a major decision at its meeting Tuesday: whether to ask the state to establish a third county court at law.
All district and county courts at law must be approved by the state Legislature, which is in session at this time. If approved by lawmakers in Austin, the court would tentatively go into service Jan. 1, 2021, allowing time for the county to make plans, facility- and budget-wise.
Ellis County has two county courts at law, with Judge Jim Chapman heading up Court at Law No. 1 and Judge Gene Calvert Jr. heading up Court at Law No. 2. Typically, the first court’s caseload includes civil matters, ranging from probate to Child Protective Services, guardianship and mental health-related cases, while the second handles the county’s class A and B misdemeanor cases.
In the runup to a workshop session Wednesday, Ellis County Judge Todd Little and the four county commissioners had received several letters and a petition signed by several dozen members of the Ellis County Bar Association in support of an additional court to address timeliness of disposition and case backlog issues.
In his letter, defense attorney Jim Jenkins described court No. 2 as “booked solid every day.”
“In addition to the daily docket calls, including the jail chains and walk-in traffic, there are several dozen jury trials on the docket at all times,” he wrote. “If that court tries a jury trial every week, which would be almost impossible, it still would lose ground because new cases are being filed daily.”
Court No. 2 statistics support Jenkins’ statement, with data indicating that daily dockets typically have more than 100 cases on their schedule. The largest docket in 2018 saw 172 cases making an appearance before Calvert on Oct. 30.
Attorney and mediator Greg Wilhelm, who is also a former county court at law judge, also submitted a letter of support, writing, “Having worked in and among the court and the judiciary of Ellis County for the past 18-plus years, I can attest to the growing need for the creation of a County Court at Law No. 3, especially in light of the county’s rapidly increasing population base.”
Worldpopulationreview.com estimates Ellis County’s current population to be 173,620, an increase of 30,118 over the eight years since the 2010 U.S. Census reported a population of 143,502.
Since the 2000 U.S. Census of 111,360, the county has increased its population by about 56-percent. On several population-related websites, Ellis County is listed as the 25th largest out of Texas’ 254 counties, with the next U.S. Census scheduled for 2020.
Other attorneys who spoke with the Sun indicated their support of another court that would assist with the handling of misdemeanor cases. One, in particular, noted the logistics involved when people have complex, pending matters across the criminal, family and Child Protective Services courts. The legal process can’t move forward in the civil matters until the criminal cases are resolved, with the backlog in criminal court delaying those dispositions.
County workshop held on court challenges
A workshop session held by the commissioners court Wednesday looked to assess the need for another court and how the challenges being experienced are currently being addressed.
Ellis County Judge Todd Little, who took office Jan. 1, said he received a letter Feb. 21 signed by all five of the county’s judges: 40th District Court Judge Bob Carroll, 378th District Court Judge William Wallace, 443rd District Court Judge Cindy Ermatinger, Ellis County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Jim Chapman and Ellis County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Gene Calvert. That letter noted their support of the commissioners court passing a resolution to request state Rep. John Wray to sponsor legislation for a third county court at law.
Little said he met with the judges, who informed him of the county’s judicial challenges, in particular, with the increasing backlog of misdemeanor cases. From there, the process of gathering information and input has continued, up to and including the workshop.
All five of the judges were on hand for the workshop, which was set after court hours to facilitate their attendance. Each noted how they are working with each other as they can on the caseloads, with Ellis County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson also on hand to share his insights.
In addition to breaking down the numbers involved with his court and the misdemeanor caseload, Calvert told the commissioners he attempts to set four jury trials per month. Most of those take at least 2.5 days, with some lasting up to four days, including the trial he heard this week.
An analysis done by the state Office of Court Administration indicates Calvert’s court saw a 48-percent increase in the number of criminal cases filed from 2017 to 2018, while court No. 1 saw a 39-percent increase in case filings the same period. Combined, the two county courts at law had a 79-percent clearance rate for 2018, according to the OCA, which wrote in its analysis, “A court should attempt to dispose of at least as many cases as are filed, which would result in a 100-percent clearance rate, to avoid a backlog of cases.”
While certain years can represent an anomaly, when courts begin seeing more cases filed than can be disposed of, it is time then to determine what factors are in play, the OCA wrote.
In a response to follow-up questions from the Sun, Calvert explained that, even if a case does not go to trial, “under the current state of the law, contested cases typically need court interaction a minimum of three to four times before the parties can determine whether an agreement or trial will resolve the case.”
He noted that “many cases require a contested evidentiary hearing before the parties can assess the strength/weakness of their position and such hearings usually last one to two hours.
“Obviously, the Court also has to deal with many cases in a short period of time in order to maintain reasonable progress,” he said.
Little had asked County Auditor Miykael Reeve to prepare a proposed budget for establishing the new court. Addressing the commissioners during the workshop, Reeve presented figures showing an annual cost of about $462,000. Taking into account the state stipend for a county court at law, the county’s cost comes to about $377,000 per year. The proposed annual cost is roughly the same as for each of the county’s existing courts at law, according to the last budget on file.
Discussion noted that the space set aside at the construction of the Courts and Administration Building would now need to be finished out. This would be an additional expense, with Wilson noting that his office also would need to look at adding people to handle another court.
In his letter, Jenkins acknowledged there is a cost to adding a new court but said that would be offset by the savings found with a greater efficiency to the judicial system.
“The cases would be moved more quickly, thus reducing the expense of feeding and taking care of the inmates (especially those whom can’t afford bail and remain in custody until their cases are resolved),” he wrote. “In addition, court appointed attorney’s fees would be lower because cases would be disposed of in a more rapid manner. [Also], fines and court costs could be collected more quickly.”
Possible action item Tuesday
Based on the information and input received during the workshop, if at least one of the commissioners requests it, an action item relating to a third county court at law would be placed on the March 12 commissioners court agenda.
During the workshop, Little read from a proposed resolution, noting, in part, that “the Commissioners Court of Ellis County, Texas, strongly supports the rule of law, the impartial administration of justice, and the fair, timely, and responsible adjudication of all court cases and related legal disputes involving the citizens of this county and others.”
The resolution notes Ellis County’s burgeoning population growth, which effect is to push the county’s court dockets to “a point of capacity and, in certain instances, urgency.”
The resolution calls for an Ellis County Court at Law No. 3 to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, and for it to have all of the same jurisdictions as courts Nos. 1 and 2, as well as “additional jurisdiction to handle felony criminal cases to the maximum jurisdictional level permitted under Texas law.”
The first judge to serve in court No. 3 would be elected by Ellis County citizens via a primary and general election process; it would not be an appointed position.
In his letter, Jenkins praised the work of the county’s five judges, saying, “[They] start early and stay late. We are blessed to have judges that are so dedicated. All courts are covered up, but County Court of Law No. 2 especially so.”
Jenkins urged the commissioners to begin the legislative process: “I ask you to take the necessary steps to create a County Court of Law No. 3.”
If the resolution is passed by the commissioners Tuesday, it would be given to Wray to pursue through the state Legislature. Asked about the legislative process, Wray’s Capitol office said a third county court at law for Ellis County “would likely be rolled into an omnibus courts bill, that would include all of the new courts in the state.”