Politics

Republican Lawmaker Drops Push To Consolidate Power In Texas Appeals Courts

Senate Bill 11 would have restructured the state’s appellate system, halving the number of districts.

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A bill that critics said would have consolidated the state's elected appeals court districts in favor of the GOP was withdrawn late Thursday.

Senate Bill 11 – authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston – would have reduce the number of appeals court districts from 14 to seven. Supporters of the bill said it would increase judicial efficiency by equalizing the workload across the different districts. Huffman also argued that consolidating the court districts would reduce the transfer of cases from one appellate district to another.

But Rice University political scientist Mark Jones called the bill an extreme attempt at partisan gerrymandering.

"As analysis of the new districts occurred, it became crystal clear that this wasn't really an effort to improve the functioning of our judicial system, but rather to bolster Republican chances of winning judicial seats in court of appeals elections across the state," Jones said.

The plan would have combined Houston's First and 14th districts into a new Sixth District that would have included more conservative counties to the north and southwest of Harris County. Dallas and Austin, both largely Democratic, would have been combined into a single new Fifth District, while largely Democratic San Antonio would have been moved to a new Third District that stretches through the Rio Grande Valley.

A linked bill – SB 1529, also by Huffman – would remove the ability of the new Austin district to hear cases involving the state government. Instead, it calls for the creation of a single statewide appeals court dealing with state issues, “to keep Democratic judges from being overly influential in appeals cases related to the state of Texas," Jones said.

SB 1529 was further along in the legislative process than SB 11. A representative from Huffman’s office told Houston Public Media that SB 1529 will be allowed to stand on its own. It has been placed on the state Senate’s intent calendar for Monday.

Under SB 11, the total number of judges on the state appeals bench would have remained the same at 80. But the net effect of the proposed changes would have been to move the appeals court system further to the right, Jones said.

Republicans already dominate the state's two top courts, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. However, those two courts do not always accept appeals from the lower courts.

If Democratic judges in an appeals court decide a case one way, and the higher courts decline to take up the case, that decision will stand.

Elsa Alcala, a former Republican appellate judge who is now a Democratic attorney in private practice, said Senator Huffman's decision to withdraw SB 11 was a wise move.

"The bill didn't make any sense the way it was drafted," Alcala said. "It was eliminating about half of the courts of appeals, creating huge areas of jurisdiction with large numbers of judges over the particular districts that were redrafted."

For starters, Alcala disagreed that combining 80 judges into a smaller number of judicial districts would increase efficiency. She also disputed that the number of cases transferred from one district to another is a legitimate reason for consolidation. A more sensible solution, she said, would be to add a judge to one district or subtract a judge from another according to their case load.

Additionally, Acala worried about the effect of SB 11 on the diversity of a largely white bench. She herself was the first Latina judge in the Harris County Criminal Courts, the first Latina on Texas’ First Court of Appeals, and the first Latina on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

By making the districts larger, she said, it’s more likely they would incorporate a whiter, more conservative voting bloc.

"It is exceedingly difficult for people of color to be elected even under the current system," Alcala said. "and the proposed system, I believe would have made it much, much harder."

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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