A primary election for the judge position is slated to occur in March. While the new court, anticipated to be operative around mid-2020, will add some relief to the overload of civil cases and unbudgeted expenses for indigent defense, some officials said they feel more will need to be added.State Rep. Steve Toth, R.-The Woodlands, authored House Bill 1437, in the 2019 legislative session to create the new court. He said he became aware of the need for the court after •seeing civil cases waiting to be heard for up to two years.•“There is a tremendous backlog of cases,” Toth said. “We could probably create two more civil courts in Montgomery County, and it would not put us where we need to be. We hope this will be a step in the right direction.”
Former Montgomery County Court Administrator Nate Jensen said the civil court caseload has been an identified need, as has additional funding.
The Office of Court Administration asked Montgomery County Commissioners Court for additional funding for the 2018-19 fiscal year in September due to indigent defense costs and received $528,000, but Judge Tracy Gilbert of the 418th District Court said additional funding for the court system has been an ongoing need.
“For the past two years, attempts have been made to essentially point the blame at the judges or our OCA director [Jensen], who we’ve lost,” Gilbert said.
Jensen officially resigned from his position in early December, but declined to comment on the reason.
Identifying a need
Work began on the new court when Jensen made a presentation to the commissioners in November 2018 to request additional funding for the OCA’s 2019-2020 budget. Since 2008, Montgomery County’s population has grown by around 140,000, a 32.4% increase, while caseloads have risen by 10,746, or 41.3%.
Jensen said the rising population has added pressure to both the criminal and civil courts in the county, but more judges have been allocated to hearing criminal cases than civil cases.
In 2019 alone, there were 3,568 new cases filed, according to OCA reports. There is currently one Montgomery County court dedicated to hearing civil court cases full-time—the 284th District Court, presided over by Judge Kristin Bays.
Bays said the increasing number of cases has created a snowball effect, where cases are piling up faster than the courts can get ahead of them. As of Oct. 31, Bays’ court had around 1,900 current pending cases, which is down from 2,206 from Jan. 1, 2019.
“Our numbers are going down, which is wonderful,” Bays said. “[However], we still have that snowball problem. We were running [on average] about 240 new cases each month. Starting in August, that number jumped to 299 and we have pretty much stayed there.”
The increase is not unique to the 284th District Court. Bays said the numbers she pulled indicate the 410th District Court is averaging 90 cases per month, an increase from 72 in 2018, and County Court at Law 2 is seeing 112 cases per month in 2019. The other two courts focus on criminal and family matters while hearing civil cases part time.
“We are ending the year with more cases than we started,” Bays said. “We try to keep [trials] on two-week dockets so we can keep them rolling.”
From Bays’ perspective, having cases going for more than two or three years is a “black mark” for a judge. Factors that can delay a case include a long series of motions by both parties, defendants moving away or witnesses dying.
Jensen said based on the numbers of judges available, the county could realistically use two additional courts to handle the increasing caseloads.
“If you tally them all up, it is about 1.8 judicial officers handling civil [cases],” Jensen said. “Really, we need about 3.5, but because we are specialized in Montgomery County, we have to take some of those measurements with a grain of salt. The process is ideally supposed to move faster.”
Gene Roberts, director of the office of student legal and mediation services for Sam Houston State University, said from his experience in litigated cases, an overburdened court makes it difficult to get new cases and trials heard.
“It is important that justice moves at some speed, and it needs to be just right,” Roberts said. “Clients just want a decision.”
Jensen said his office conducted a weighted caseload study last year to see if there was a better way to handle the cases.
“We worked with our counterpart in Austin for their recommendation,” Jensen said. “Using that, we went to the commissioners. ... We were only asking the commissioners to bless one new court as opposed to two. We believe in doing it moderately as well.”
Court creation, budgetary needs
Although the new civil court was approved through HB 1437, a judge still needs to be elected and a court coordinator, court reporter and assistant coordinator need to be hired before the new civil court is ready to begin hearing cases.
Jensen said there is no need for a new space for a courtroom and offices, as the current overflow courtroom on the second floor of the old courthouse on North Street will provide the space needed. There will also be no cost to the county for the judge, whose salary and benefits will be paid for by the state.
A 2018 report from the Texas Judicial Commission indicates a district judge receives a $140,000 salary from the state.
The outcome of the March primary could determine when the court can begin to hear cases, as a runoff if there is a Democratic candidate would delay the process until June or July, Jensen said.
In addition to the new court, OCA has repeatedly asked for additional funding.
Although Montgomery County Commissioners Court approved the $528,000 requested by the OCA for FY 2018-19, OCA officials said they will need more money next fiscal year, •Community Impact Newspaper •previously reported.
Since 2017, the OCA budget has increased by about $100,000 annually, totaling $466,000 in 2019. Going into FY 2020-21, the county commissioners will have to budget between $300,000 and $350,000 for new courtroom staff, Jensen said.
“We were instructed [in September] to come back midyear and essentially beg for money, and we don’t want to be in that position,” Gilbert said at the Sept. 24 meeting when additional funding was approved.
Benefits to residents
Civil courts differ from criminal courts, which process misdemeanor and felony cases, by processing lawsuits and disputes.
Guidelines from the Supreme Court of Texas state nontrial civil cases should be resolved in about 12 months and trial cases should aim for around 18 months. Jensen said many cases in Montgomery County take about two years to resolve.
Roberts said a lengthy court process can negatively affect a business because it is difficult to plan for resources and budgets. The longer a case is in court, the more costly it is to businesses and residents.
To get cases out of the courtroom, Roberts said mediation can be used to allow judges to concentrate on the cases in front of them. Jensen said the practice is used in Montgomery County civil and family courts when deemed appropriate by a judge, but default use of mediation can actually lengthen the age of a case, which also contributes to the backlog.
Toth said adding the new court to the Montgomery County system will encourage people to bring their cases forward.
“Right now, if you are a defendant and you are damaged by somebody, you are in a tight spot,” Toth said. “In many cases, people are not bringing cases. ...They are not getting justice.”
Bays said the additional civil court will improve the county’s efficiency at managing caseloads, saving taxpayers money and making the process smoother for any individual or business in court.
“[People] are much more likely to be involved in a civil court case than a criminal one,” Bays said. “When things go wrong in life that are just the daily things they do, they end up in civil court. A breach of contract, building a house, being in a car accident ... those are the makeup of civil courts.”
Eva Vigh contributed to this report
This article ran in the December 2019 edition of The Woodlands. Read the full e-edition here.