Four judges want county commissioners to create a new district court to help deal with family cases burdening county courts at law and avert a looming crisis, but commissioners are cool to the idea.
Judges Jack Ewing, who presides over County Court at Law No. 3; John Grady, who presides over County Court at Law No. 1; Kerri Foley who presides over County Court at Law No. 2; and Anne Darring who presides over the 306th District Court; signed a request March 3 for a new family district court.
County commissioners argue the judges timed their request badly, that statistics don’t support the need for a new district court and there’s no place to put one.
“First of all, the process for asking for a new court occurs during the planning phase, which is in August and September, not the middle of March, which is in the middle of a legislative session,” County Judge Mark Henry said.
Ewing, who drafted the request, said county court dockets are averaging a caseload of more than 2,000 family cases, which include divorce and custody cases.
“A new family court would be able to assume those family cases presently assigned to the county courts, which is 50 percent of the total family cases,” Ewing wrote. “This represents over 2,000 active family cases, which would be transferred from the county courts to the new family court.”
Half of family cases are now sent to the 306th District Court and the other half are split among the three county courts at law, Ewing said.
The county courts at law deal with misdemeanor cases, civil cases and juvenile cases, along with family cases.
A new court hasn’t been established in 21 years, while the county’s population has grown from 250,000 to more 360,000, Ewing wrote.
By 2025, Galveston County is projected to grow to about 380,000 people, Ewing said.
“Simply put, no court could ever be expected to be able to effectively manage an active docket of over 2,400 cases,” Ewing wrote. “It is unreasonable and unattainable.”
If a family district court is not added, there will be a caseload of more than 2,800 active cases by 2025, Ewing said.
Courts have been struggling since 2018 to handle pending cases, he said.
Commissioners have been unwilling to put the item on an agenda, Ewing told The Daily News.
“These family cases take a lot of time,” Ewing said. “They require a lot of hearings and they’ve turned a deaf ear to our needs for a new family court.”
It will eventually become evident the courts aren’t managing cases in a timely manner, Ewing said. If a new family district court is not added, the county can hit a crisis point, he said.
“I don’t know why the commissioners don’t agree with the report,” Ewing said. “And I’m sorry they don’t because it’s to the detriment of the families that are involved in these cases. Some cases take several weeks to trial.”
The Office of Court Administration compiled statistics that didn’t support adding a family district court, Henry said, adding there was no place for a new court to operate.
“Where are we going to put it?” Henry said. “We don’t have a spare courtroom that is not currently used at near full capacity. This is one of those logistical things that they don’t seem to think of or even care about. There’s no place to put the court.”
Another problem with a new district court is although the state pays the judge’s base salary, the county bears the rest of the expenses, Henry said.
“They try to minimize it and say it’s not that much,” Henry said. “Yes it is.”
It was too late in the year to be considering a new district court, Commissioner Joe Giusti said.
“I think at some point in time maybe we will need a family district court,” Giusti said. “But for right now, with the legislature rolling, it’s a bit late in the game.”
What Galveston county needs is a new judge in a 306th District Court. Judge Darring regularly sides with violent offenders and drug users in family cases involving child custody. How many of these cases end up back in court clogging up the docket.
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