Fort Worth Star Telegram

Will Texas lawmakers judge it time to merge high courts?
Jan. 03, 2013

At least one Texas lawmaker wants to put nine of the state’s most powerful elected officials out of jobs.

The rationale is that they’re part of an antiquated structure that gives Texas two courts of last resort instead of one, as most states and the federal judiciary have.

HB 134, pre-filed by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, would abolish the nine-judge Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and give the Texas Supreme Court power to decide which criminal appeals from lower courts to review. All death penalty cases would get high-court scrutiny as soon as trial courts are done with them, as they do now, except it would be by the Supreme Court rather than the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Separate high courts have reviewed civil and criminal cases in Texas for more than 120 years, and periodically one group or another has recommended merging the tribunals. (Oklahoma’s the only other state with a similar structure.)

The theoretical upsides of a unified court of last resort:

A simpler, more efficient structure.

Less expense for judges’ and their staffs’ salaries and benefits.

Fewer judicial elections, which many voters don’t pay attention to anyway.

The potential downsides of a merger:

A slower system because of case backlogs (the Supreme Court handled more than 3,000 cases and motions in 2012, the Court of Criminal Appeals more than 9,000, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration,

Less expertise in specialized fields, both civil and criminal, among the high-court judges, especially in the arcane intricacies of capital punishment law.

More power over Texas law concentrated in fewer hands, all of them still appointed or elected with a partisan stamp.

Previous merger proposals have gone nowhere in the Legislature. They might get more traction if they also dealt with areas that are even more in need of addressing, such as streamlining the inefficient system of district and county courts, or eliminating the roll of money in the judicial selection process.

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