Montgomery County judges request new district court from state Legislature to alleviate caseloads

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Under pressure from a vast caseload increase, the Montgomery County board of judges is pleading with the state Legislature for an additional district court.

Annual caseloads in county district courts have risen by 10,746 cases since 2008—a 41.3 percent increase, compared to the 32.4 percent population growth over the same time period, according to the board of judges’ court documents presented to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court on Nov. 20. The last time a new court was created by the Legislature in Montgomery County was in 2007.

Nate Jensen, director of court administration for Montgomery County, said the caseload increase has been seen across criminal, civil and family cases. With the county jail spending $50 a day per inmate and with many cases using public defenders, the overburdened system is a drag on taxpayer funds, according to the documents.

The Texas Supreme Court standard dictates all civil jury cases be disposed within 18 months and all nonjury cases within one year. Currently, 20 percent of civil cases take longer than a year to be resolved, and only 1 percent of civil cases are jury trials in Montgomery County, according to the board of judges.

Jensen said a host of local socio-economic and demographic factors contribute to the caseload increase, such as higher marriage rates, which translate to higher divorce rates compared to other places seeing a cohabitation trend in which splitting up does not require legal action. As for civil cases, he said rates are up against the many companies headquartered here.

“We have an unbelievable explosion in the numbers of cases we have—as one [judge]who does all felony cases, I can tell you my dockets are packed,” Judge Kathleen Hamilton of the 359th District Court said at the Nov. 20 meeting. “We are disproportionately growing [caseloads]much faster than statewide.”

Hamilton said felony cases have increased because police departments countywide have increased their staff and are arresting more people.

State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, filed House Bill 1437 on Feb. 6 requesting a new district court. An omnibus Senate bill grouping statewide requests is expected to be filed, but was not as of press time.

“It’s very clear from the recommendations … that break down the data for how much caseload warrants how many different courts in different jurisdictions, and that recommendation came back to us at Montgomery County needing two [new]courts, and even under some information three [new]courts,” said Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe. “We’re going to move forward through our office supporting adding one [district court].”

Caseloads and courts

On Nov. 20, Judge Tracy Gilbert of the 418th District Court, who is spearheading the new district court request to the Legislature, said the backlog cannot be solved by adding associate judges or part-time jobs.

Compared to the average caseload per district of the five-county cohort—Denton, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Williamson and Cameron, which are similar in population size—Montgomery County’s caseload is 37.8 percent higher in civil cases, 48.4 percent higher in family cases and 40.6 percent higher in felony cases.

“We have a higher caseload than every area, even the larger counties like Denton and Fort Bend,” Gilbert said Nov. 20. “Our judges are working harder than all four of those other counties—we have more cases. We’re doing the work, but there are so many cases here that we need another court.”

The Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to support the request for a new district court Nov. 20, and voted unanimously in support Feb. 12 with its new members.

“We’ve added courts before, and they’re full,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Meador said. “I support it wholeheartedly.”

If the Legislature approves the bill, the earliest a new court could manifest is summer 2020 due to fiscal year funding timelines.

The county is responsible for staff and stipends, and the state pays district judges. The courtroom space and offices are already built and available, as well.

“It’s up to the judges to determine what cases would go into that new court,” Jensen said. “The biggest issue right now is the 284th court has over 2,300 civil cases ranging from $1,000 all the way up to multimillion-dollar cases … as the county grows, the cases become more complex and they tend to take more judicial time.”

Jensen said a new court could mean fewer numbers of cases for each judge, but not necessarily less work.

“They’ll be able to spend the time they should have been spending for at least the past two or three years on cases that need attention,” Jensen said. “It’s really going to allow the judges to be more in control of their docket, which is ultimately a good thing for the taxpayers and a good thing for citizens in court.”

Veterans, specialty courts

Before requesting a new court, the judges reorganized their dockets in 2012 to consolidate case types so they could work with consistent attorney teams. They also created specialty courts such as the DWI court and the drug court, which help people access court-ordered treatment instead of going to the county jail, which was at 95-97 percent capacity in 2012.

After these changes, the jail population has not surpassed 78 percent capacity since 2016, Jensen said.

“[Specialized courts] have been good at expediting cases so that [inmates]aren’t having to stay in the system for so long,” Jensen said. “If you can cut down the number of days in jail, it’s going to have a financial effect on the county in the long run.”

One specialty court in the county is the Veterans Treatment Court, created to help veterans convicted of felonies or misdemeanors caused by mental health trauma suffered at war to receive court-
ordered treatment to improve mental health recovery and community reintegration instead of jail time.

Montgomery County maintains a 20-24 percent veteran population in its jail—double the national average of 10 percent, according to Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare. To address the problem, the county redirects people living with post-traumatic stress disorder through its Veterans Treatment Court and the veteran’s pod in the jail, which helps with  resources, services and community reintegration.

Hamilton, the presiding judge over the veterans court, said the number of veterans in the program has increased from two to 30 since it began May 2015.

Ashley Taylor, veteran services coordinator with Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare and veteran liaison for the veterans court, said the county has an average number of veterans in its general population.

“We knew that number [of veterans in jail]is high … but I don’t know where the answers to those questions [about why]lie,” she said. “Sometimes a person happens to be a veteran and committed a crime and needs to go to jail, but there are definitely veterans falling through the cracks, not getting treatment they need based on trauma that went untreated from the military.”

There are more than 30 veteran courts across Texas, the first beginning in Harris County seven years ago.

“The veterans court shows real compassion and creativity in helping our veterans navigate the criminal justice system,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Conroe. “This system is one that could be duplicated in other parts of the state to help ensure our veterans receive the help they need re-entering society.”

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Jules Rogers
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Jules Rogers has been covering community journalism and urban trade news since 2014. She moved to Houston in June 2018 to become an editor with Community Impact Newspaper after four years of reporting for various newspapers affiliated with the Portland Tribune in Oregon, including two years at the Portland Business Tribune. Before that, Jules spent time reporting for the Grants Pass Daily Courier in Southern Oregon. Her favorite beats to cover are business, economic development and urban planning.
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