By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Liberty County may soon have a second county court-at-law if a House bill filed by State Rep. Ernest Bailes (District 18) is approved during the 86th Legislature Regular Session.
Proponents of HB 717 say the historic growth that is coming to Liberty County will undoubtedly cause an additional burden on the court system and the county’s two district courts need to be freed up to hear more criminal cases and fewer family law cases.
According to Bailes, the idea for the second county court at law was brought to his attention by 75th State District Judge Mark Morefield.
“We had a conversation to ensure that County Judge Jay Knight, Judge Morefield, Judge [Chap] Cain [of the 253rd State District Court] and [County Court-at-Law Judge [Tommy] Chambers were in full support of this,” Bailes said.
In theory, the caseload on the two county courts could be divided into family law matters in the new court and criminal cases and other matters in Chamber’s courtroom, or vice versa.
Currently, the county court-at-law handles a wide variety of cases from criminal misdemeanors, civil disputes under $200,000, felony juvenile offenses, probate matters, guardianship, condemnation suits, ad valorem tax suits, protective orders and family law.
Chambers is proud of the efficiency of his court, which holds two jury trials per month on average.
“We are one of the busiest county court-at-laws in the state. At one time we were handling more cases than any other county court-at-law in Texas,” Chambers said.
Creation of the new county court-at-law will be pricey with an estimated $500,000 to $800,000 needed to create a courtroom and hire a judge, clerk, bailiff and court reporter. The financial burden could be offset by moving inmates through the court system sooner and reducing the number of days they are incarcerated at the county jail.
“We have grown enough where we need this second county court-at-law. It’s better to anticipate growth and prepare for it,” said Judge Cain. “A lot of people want a jury trial and we are not equipped to try as many jury trials as we need. It creates a backlog of cases.”
Cain said the bottom line is that whether a defendant is put on probation, convicted or acquitted, the faster they are moved through Liberty County’s legal system, the better it is for all parties.
There are still concerns about how a reduction in jail numbers will impact the county financially as the corporation contracted to run the county jail gets paid more per inmate when the jail population dips below a set threshold.
“If commissioners can find a company willing to run the jail for a reasonable price, and we had one once, it would work,” Cain said. “Of course, the sheriff could also take over the jail.”
District Attorney Logan Pickett is hopeful that HB 717 will pass.
“Selfishly it will free up the district courts to hear more felony cases.
I believe we are being proactive with all the growth that is coming,” Pickett said. “I look for the creation of at least a couple more courts in Liberty County over the next 10 years. They are saying we could see a 40 percent increase in the population, so it stands to reason that you will need a corresponding number of courts for the increased population.”
If the court is approved by the Texas Legislature this session, decisions about the court’s location and funding will fall on County Judge Jay Knight and the four county commissioners.
Knight believes one option is to tear down the old county jail, located on Sam Houston Ave. between San Jacinto Ave. and Fannin St., in Liberty. The site could then be used for a multi-purpose building that could house the courts, even temporarily, while the Liberty County Courthouse is renovated.
“There are a lot of things that have to happen first – tear down the old jail, build a new building there, move everyone to the new building, get the courthouse refurbished and then move judicial back in there,” Knight said.
In order for the county to qualify for grants from the Texas Historic Commission, a wrecking ball might have to knock down the west wing that was added onto the original Art Deco-style courthouse, which was built in 1930 and opened around 1933.
“The west wing has to go to get matching grants and historical value. It’s not part of the original courthouse,” the county judge said. “The clock is ticking on the old courthouse. It’s decision time. If we are going to use the courthouse, then we have to do something now to refurbish it, or eventually there will be nothing left to fix.”
Realistically, Knight said, the goal is to build a multi-purpose building within the next four years, though creation of a courtroom for the second county court-at-law might come with earlier deadlines.
“I don’t know if it will be immediate or take a couple of years. It will depend on what the statute says,” Knight said. “At some point, we will have to figure out if we want to appoint a judge to this new court or use someone like retired County Court-at-Law Judge Don Taylor on a part-time basis. There are a lot of ways we could handle it.”
With the State Legislature just wrapping up Week 5 of a 20-week schedule, a decision on HB 717 might take a while, but Bailes is optimistic.
“With our recent growth and the inevitable continuance of such, this step will help to ensure that we are ready. By shortening the time that we must house folks in our jail pending trial, the county will see a definite financial savings,” Bailes said. “We started working on this bill last session by addressing a few discrepancies in case reporting, and now have everything rolling in the right direction.”