In its most recent session, the Texas Legislature approved the creation of two new courts at law for Hidalgo County. County officials have decided not to rush into launching them, and it seems a good idea.
Courts at law essentially are a step between district courts and lower-level municipal courts and justices of the peace. Frequently they are used as specialty courts, such as veterans, juvenile or probate courts, or they can be appellate courts for the justices of the peace or municipal courts.
The two new courts were established at the county’s request, and the county had the option of appointing judges and starting up the courts immediately, or waiting until voters fill the positions in the 2020 elections. Commissioners, who are cobbling together the budget for the next fiscal year, decided to wait.
A few factors influenced the decision. The county’s budget for the courts at law already is taking a hit, after the legislature voted to increase the compensation for the courts’ more veteran judges. The statutory raises will cost county taxpayers more than $117,000.
In addition, the new courts need courtrooms, which the county doesn’t have. The new Hidalgo County Courthouse, currently under construction, isn’t expected to be completed until the summer of 2021.
County officials say that while the requested the new courts because they see the need, that need isn’t immediate. Their argument makes sense. The judicial system has to grow with the county’s population, and its smart to expand on a reasonable timetable rather than be reactionary and wait until the need is too acute to allow for proper planning. The legislature only meets every two years, and county officials need to take that into consideration as they plan for the future.
Fortunately, it appears that time is not critical. Not only has the county planned for the future before it arrives, but changes in local and state criminal procedure could buy the county more time before the new courts are needed. Confusion over the legislature’s recent legal protection over hemp, and unreliable testing that could distinguish between hemp and cannabis, which remains illegal, has prompted several prosecutors and the Department of Public Safety to forgo prosecution of possession of small amounts of marijuana. It also appears that prosecutors’ eagerness to appear tough on crime has subsided, and many prosecutors and courts have begun showing more leniency toward nonviolent offenders. This could mean fewer warrants and fewer arrests for such nonviolent crimes.
Waiting for the formal process to play out ensure that all those who wish to run for the new court seats start on equal footing, rather than face an appointed incumbent. It provides the county’s natural growth to expand the tax base to better afford the new courts when they are inaugurated.
With no immediate need for new courts, the decision not to rush the staffing of the new courts seems the most prudent option.