AUSTIN, Texas – A state lawmaker living in the northern part of the 20-county region covered by the 13th Court of Appeals has filed a bill to split the Court in two.
Under state Rep. Phil Stephenson’s legislation, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties would be covered by a completely new appeals court, to be known as the 15th Court of Appeals. The remaining 17 counties currently served by the 13th Court, including Nueces County, would stay with the 13th Court.
The one Republican justice on the 13th Court, Greg Perkes of Corpus Christi, supports Stephenson’s legislation. The other five justices on the Court, all Democrat, are opposed to it.
Laying out House Bill 2730 in the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, Stephenson, a Republican from Wharton County, said he was concerned about population projections. Because the Rio Grande Valley is growing so fast, representation in the northern part of the district will be diminished, he argued.
“I brought this bill for a simple reason. It is not about today it is about the growth of South Texas. What happens when there are five million people down there?” Stephenson said, referring to the Rio Grande Valley.
Stephenson said the current population for the 13th Court of Appeals region is about 2.54 million. “Within ten to 12 years you are going to have four million people with probably about three million in Hidalgo. That is the growth pattern if anyone wants to go look at that stuff. We have got to be ahead of the curve. Everything we do in this state should be about being ahead of the curve.”
Stephenson concluded his remarks with this: “I would like to have a little representation and I don’t believe that is a fact in Wharton County or Jackson County or Matagorda.” Stephenson is from Wharton County.
The 13th Court of Appeals was set up in 1963 with three justices and it was based in Nueces County. It was expanded to six justices in 1981 in order to handle more criminal matters. In 1989 justices started traveling to the Valley to hear appeals. In 1994 a court was established in Edinburg. By law, any appeals to cases filed in Hidalgo, Cameron or Willacy counties must be heard in the Edinburg court. Any appeals to cases filed in the other 17 counties must be heard in Corpus Christi.
If Stephenson’s bill becomes law the new look 13th Court of Appeals would have a population of roughly 800,000, Stephenson said, while the brand new 15th Court of Appeals, comprising Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties only, would have a population of roughly 1.2 million.
Stephenson disputed the fiscal note attached to his bill, which said the cost of creating a new court of appeals would be $400,000. He said the only new employee needed would be a staff attorney for the chief justice of the 15th Court. He said that as a CPA he does not want to see “runaway” spending and has thus included language in his bill that prevents any more money going to either the 13th or 15th Court for the next ten years.
Under HB 2730, three justices would be assigned to the 13th Court and three to the 15th Court. Based on historical voting patterns, if Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties are removed from the 13th Court of Appeals the 13th Court would be solidly Republican. The new 15th Court of Appeals would be solidly Democratic.
In his personal capacity, Doug Norman, an assistant district attorney for Nueces County, testified in favor of Stephenson’s legislation. Norman told the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence that he had run for the 13th Court of Appeals twice before without success. He said the last time he ran he lost by 5,000 votes. He said if Stephenson’s legislation was law, he would have won in the 13th Court by 70 percent of the vote and he would have lost in the 15th Court by 70 percent. “I think this illustrates the difference between the two districts. They are not really the same district. They have different interests and different constituencies,” said Norman, a Republican.
Norman pointed out that Hidalgo County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state. “The differences are only going to continue. The population base is only going to continue to strengthen in the Valley. Which effectively means the northern district is essentially disenfranchised. It is a fairness issue,” Norman said.
Norman said no one distinct geographic area of the state should not feel entirely disenfranchised. “The northern district will effectively have no representation on this court, no judges on this court. The numbers speak to that. They cannot overcome the numerical advantage the Rio Grande Valley has now and for all intents and purposes will continue to have. The northern district deserves its own court and its own judges. The voters in that district should be able to have some say on who is deciding the cases. It is a fairness issue,” Norman added.
13th Court of Appeals Justice Gina Benavides, a Democrat, testified against Stephenson’s bill when it was heard by the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence. Benavides said she represents all 20 counties in the 13th Court’s region. “It does not matter if you are from Brownsville or Matagorda, we represent all our counties and we do so in a very efficient and expediential manner.”
Benavides disputed claims that justices have identical staff in both the Corpus Christi and Edinburg courts. “We do not have redundant staffing in either office. We have one clerk of the court, we have one senior staff attorney, we have one accountant and we have one IT person. If you are to create two courts those will have to be duplicated in the second court. There would also be added technology and added staffing. It is not true that if you split us in half it is not going to cost you a dime. That is untrue. The fiscal note is correct. It is over $400,000 of your money having to be spent to create another court which, honestly, is completely unnecessary,” Benavides said.
Benavides cited statistics from the Office of Court Administration that show that the 13th Court of Appeals handles appeals in an expeditious manner. “We have met our standards every year. We have come close to 100 percent in all our measurements of all our cases. It does not matter where they come from; we get all our cases done by all our court,” she said.
Benavides said there are economies of scale with a six-member court, as compared to a three-member court. “By creating two three-member courts you are increasing the cost to the appellate court,” she said.
Benavides noted that the county judge where a 15th Court of Appeals would be based is opposed to splitting the 13th Court of Appeals. She was referring to Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia.
Benavides said she took issue with Justice Perkes, who testified before her, on the issue of travel allowances for justices. She said there are travel allowances and so there is no need for a justice to have to pay such expenses out of their own pocket. Benavides told the House panel that she comes from Corpus Christi and has family there but moved to the Valley when she graduated from law school. “I serve both counties. I think I am a fair representation of both Hidalgo and Nueces County. I tell people I have a dual residency. I have a 261 number I have a 956 number. I have an address in Corpus and I have an address in the Rio Grande Valley. I do not think anyway it affects the representation of this court.”
Benavides added that “if you look at the makeup of the Court right now we represent all our jurisdictions.” She said with e-filing and e-conferencing, the 13th Court is “completely functional” in its operations. “Any attorney can be in Corpus Christi and argue at case in Hidalgo County. Any judge can be in Hidalgo County and see a case in Corpus Christi. You can hear your case electronically,” Benavides said.
In his testimony, Perkes said 12 county judges from the northern part of the 13th Court of Appeals have signed letters in support of Stephenson’s legislation. He said the 13th Court is the only appeals court in Texas with two fully staffed but separate offices in two different cities. He said the split envisaged in Stephenson’s legislation “is already there as far as the cases are concerned.”
Perkes said one of the main reasons for splitting the 13th Court is that “the judicial process is hampered by having separate chambers with minimum communication, rather than one unifying court.” He said a conference by email is telephone is “dysfunctional.” He said there is currently too much duplication.
“Justices and staff must travel back and forth. 99 percent of the conferences I have gone down to, my visits have been on my own nickel, not the State’s.”
Another reason HB 2730 should pass, Perkes said, is that “regional representation on the court is skewed.” This is how he explained it: “Due to the population of the three southern counties, which is two million, it is difficult for the 17 northern counties, which have less than 800,000, to get a candidate elected.”
Perkes said he grew up in the Valley and that it deserves its own court. He said he has lived in Coastal Bend for 30 years and has established his career there. “There is no reason why two major geographical areas and population bases should have to share a court.”
Perkes summed up his rationale for supporting a split of the 13th Court: speedier decisions, less expense for the taxpayers, fair representation. “In closing, a 15th Court of Appeals accomplishes a much needed change in the service of justice for all the residents in the 20 counties. I realize changing a judicial district is not an action that can be taken lightly. However, this is the right thing to do,” he said.
House Bill 2730 was passed out of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence on a 5 to 3 vote.