Texas chief justices, attorneys and legislators spoke out against Senate Bill 11 and SB 1529 last week in a Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence hearing for its lack of minority inclusion.
According to Senate documents, these two bills will change the composition of the Texas Court of Appeals as well as what districts are in each court.
With the new proposed map, the Texas Court of Appeals would be made up of seven districts instead of 14. If adopted, SB 11 would also merge Democratic leaning counties together. The merging of counties could lead to an even larger Republican majority in Texas Justices.
In the 2020 general elections, Democratic justices won five of the 14 courts while Republicans won nine.
Testifying at the hearing, Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Emily Eby said both bills would “dilute minority power.”
“The current court of appeals are roughly proportional when it comes to electing minority candidates of choice,” she said.
Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said these bills specifically violate section two of the United States Voting Rights Act.
“It creates only one Latino opportunity district out of seven and retrogress Latino ability to elect from 20 percent to 14 percent of the seats on the Courts of Appeals,” she said.
Furthermore, Perales and Sen. Juan Hinojosa both agreed the bill would “pack” Latino voting strengths in certain areas.
Erin Nowell, the only African-American justice on the bench, said Texas has been making progress on diversity, but this bill would take us back.
“This bill will not only decrease the opportunity for minority voters to vote their choice, ” she said. “It will also make it and guarantee that the number of justices of color would lose in the next election.
Chief justices across the state are also arguing the untimeliness of the bill.
In the hearing, Bonnie Sudderth, chair of the 14 chief justices, said SB 11 would “disrupt” the system right when courts are starting to recover amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s not us the judges who will suffer, but the people that we serve,” Sudderth said.
Chief Justice Darlene Byrneof the Third Court of Appeals, also testified this new bill would only grow the backlog of cases.
Byrne said because of social distancing and CDC guidelines, courts are not able to practice jury trials and child welfare cases at a steady rate.
“This tsunami or jury trial backlog will take us three years to clear,” she said. “This is no time to reshuffle the deck of courts of appeals when we need to be the most stable.”
“In 2019, we tried 9,000 jury trials in this state, in 2020 during the pandemic only 239,” Bryne said. “We have gone from 186 jury trials a week to four in the state of Texas.”
Robert Burns, chief justice of the Dallas Court of Appeals, testified that the new mega courts would require even more case transfers then it does now.
“Currently we only transfer about four or five percent of the cases,” he said. “And it seems to me we’re taking a sledgehammer when a tack hammer could resolve this issue.”
Moreover, Chief Justice of the Seventh Court Appeals, Bryan Quinn said SB 11 doesn’t address the impact of conflicting opinions on a case.
“Being a judge in a transfery court, we are confronted with what law do we apply if this court says this,” he said. “We would like some certainty.”
Yet, some witnesses for the bill believe it would make Texas legislation run smoother.
Lee Parsley, Texas for Lawsuit Reform representative, testified that since Texas is the only state with multi-county districts courts and overlapping jurisdiction between counties, a change is necessary in the Texas Court of Appeals.
“We have 14 apellate courts when California has five,” he said. “We have more courts than the federal courts.”
Sen. Joan Huffman, author of both bills, said the bill was created to equalize the number of cases given to each justice and eventually minimize the number of case transfers to other Texas Court of Appeals.
At the end of the hearing both bills were recommended to the Texas Senate with three ayes and two nays.
Kennedy is a recent graduate of the University of St.Thomas in Houston where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Celt Independent. Kennedy brings her experience of writing about social justice issues to the Texas Signal where she serves as our Political Reporter. She does everything from covering crime beats, Texas politics, and community activism. Kennedy is a passionate reporter, avid reader, coffee enthusiast, and loves to travel.