On Wednesday, Chief Justice Hecht delivered his first “State of the Judiciary” address to the Texas Legislature. The State Bar has a page on storify collecting some photos and tweets.
I wasn’t able to live tweet this year, or even to watch live. But I’ve had a chance to watch the video and wanted to pass along the highlights.
The speech began with a subject of occasional tension between the branches: statutory interpretation. (The debate about the role of “text” versus “legislative intent” is a long one, and one that understandably looks different to the legislator whose unspoken intent may not be reflected well in the text.)
The Chief explained that the courts were working hard to give effect to what the legislature meant by looking at what was said in the statute’s text, but that doing so was sometimes difficult. He also noted the importance of solid statutory interpretation, observing that his Court’s docket was now dominated by statutory questions instead of common-law concerns.
The Chief proposed that the two branches explore ways to better understand the challenges the other faced in writing and reading statutes. As a point of reference, he noted that there had been an initiative by the federal judiciary in the early 1990s to foster better “interbranch” understanding by creating a working group with a mix of judicial and legislative staff.
The Chief observed that Texas saw nearly 100,000 criminal charges per year for truancy. To the extent that the goal was to deter kids from skipping school, “one has to think, maybe it’s not working.”
He urged the Legislature to take these kids out of the juvenile-justice system by decriminalizing the act of not going to school, while providing other ways to encourage at-risk children to attend school.
Access to justice for veterans and the middle class
The Chief praised the Legislature for stepping up to support legal aid when its traditional, interest-rate-based funding mechanism broke down. He also praised the time and money donated by Texas lawyers — measured in millions of dollars and millions of hours.
With regard to veterans, he noted specific problems they face, noting that threats such as “debt collectors at the door” can be “enemies at home,” perhaps contributing to the high suicide rate among returning veterans. He asked the Legislature for $4 million to help with the Court’s work in coordinating services aimed at veterans. He also praised Texas’s system of criminal courts aimed at veterans, which prioritize rehabilitation over punishment. [This got loud applause from the room.]
With regard to the “justice gap” more generally, the Chief noted the market mismatch between lawyers who graduate needing work and the middle-class families or small businesses that struggle to afford legal help. He told the Legislature that the Court would be convening a select committee from among courts, law schools, the state bar, legal aid groups, and others, to explore solutions. (The one he mentioned was developing programs to help guide interested law students toward developing a practice that could offer services at more affordable rates.)
Court budgets and resources
The Chief began by focusing on the need for appropriate compensation of court staff — law clerks, attorneys, and court clerks. He noted the gap between the salaries courts could offer and the private sector, and asked that the Legislature consider the “modest and reasonable … but essential” increases that were included with the appellate courts’ requested budgets. Ensuring adequate and fairly compensated staff would ensure the “time and resources to get every case right.”
The Chief also praised the progress toward a statewide e-filing system, explaining that 93% of Texans are now covered by at least voluntary e-filing and that, next year, the entire state will have e-filing. He urged the Legislature to provide some additional funds to those “less populous” counties that might need equipment or software to take the last step of this transition so that Texas can have “a twenty-first century judiciary.”
The address stopped short of making concrete suggestions, with the Chief saying that he had “no consensus solution to offer” from the judicial branch. But he put forward two personal thoughts.
First, he noted that although the public demands that judges (“like all public officials”) be accountable, that interest was “rarely” served by campaigns with little actual information about judicial candidate qualifications that instead turn on “campaign spending, familiar names, national political swings, and blind luck.”
Second, he observed that “the political parties want to participate in judicial selection, and their interest is legitimate. But the increasingly harsh political pressures judges face and to which they are not permitted as judges to respond, as other public officials can, threaten the independence judges must maintain to wield the power to decide the people’s disputes with each other and with their government. Judges try to resist those pressures. The public is understandably skeptical that they will succeed.”
While acknowledging that not all judges agree about judicial selection, he expressed concern that “the tensions” he described “are mounting and will tear at the judiciary’s integrity.” He indicated his willingness to work with the legislature on “considering paths to reform.”