With fast-growing populations, Comal and Guadalupe counties are feeling a strain on their court systems.
For the first time since 1985, the Guadalupe County Commissioners Court passed a resolution Nov. 13 to advocate for an additional district court in the state’s 2019 legislative session.
“More people are getting divorced; more people are suing each other, and that’s why we’re having the need for a new court,” 25th Judicial District Judge William D. Old III told Guadalupe County commissioners in November. “Just so you know, at the end of 2017 we had 1,630 [civil cases]and [today]we have 1,835. That’s 200 additional cases.”
By the end of 2018, the county’s civil caseload grew to 1874. According to the Texas Judicial Branch website, the number of civil court cases in Guadalupe County has increased 25 percent during the past five years, and family court cases are up more than 40 percent.
“It’s mushrooming,” Old said. “Just [by]the numbers alone you can see the growth is in the civil area, and that’s why we are requesting a civil priority court—just to handle that caseload because it’s just blossomed—exploded—and that comes with population.”
To the west in Comal County, Judge Sherman Krause said case numbers are up in all areas.
“It’s criminal, civil, family law, [Child Protective Services] cases,” he said, “It’s across the board rather than just one component.”
According to Krause, county officials have been analyzing the data and feel it justifies asking the state for an additional district court and county court at law. He said a proposal could go before the Comal County Commissioners Court for consideration in coming weeks before the request would be passed to the Texas Legislature.
The last time Comal County petitioned for an additional court was in 2003, after which a second county court at law was added.
The Texas court system
The Texas courts hierarchy has many tiers. According to the Texas Judicial Branch, district courts fall under the state’s 14 regional courts of appeals, which are second to Texas’ two highest courts—the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Texas has 469 district courts, some of which serve more than one county. They have original jurisdiction in civil actions exceeding $200, divorce, land titles, contested elections, juvenile cases and felony criminal matters.
Next are county-level courts, which have limited jurisdiction. Each of Texas’ 254 counties has a constitutional county court that handles probate matters, civil suits and misdemeanors.
Within county-level courts are statutory county courts that have authority over all civil, criminal, original and appellate actions prescribed by law for constitutional county courts. The state’s 118 probate courts also fall under the county courts umbrella.
Lastly, justice and municipal courts are local trial courts of limited jurisdiction handling magistrate functions, criminal misdemeanors punishable by fine and other less severe matters.
In August, the Comal County Commissioners Court approved adding an additional courtroom to the Landa Building at 199 Main Plaza, New Braunfels, which is undergoing a renovation project. Coupled with the county’s annex building renovation that will follow, the county will go from four courtrooms to seven.
Paul Anthony, Comal County public information officer, said combining the endeavor with current construction plans was a budget-conscious decision that will save taxpayers in the long term despite adding $4.4 million to the $22 million project.
Krause said the county picks up most of the cost for a county court at law with the state supplementing a portion of the judge’s salary. For a district court the judge’s salary is paid by the state, but the county funds all supporting staff.
In Guadalupe County, Judge Kyle Kutcher said the associated taxpayer cost for adding a district court would be approximately $200,000 for staffing and benefits but would not include office space, furniture or renovations to a courtroom in the Guadalupe County Justice Center in Seguin.
“As we continue to grow, those cases continue to increase,” Kutcher told the Guadalupe County Commissioners Court on Nov. 13. “… If we don’t get a judge, we could be in a serious situation.”