Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson
AUSTIN -- Lawyers and consumer activists have begun to mobilize against a landmark Texas bill aimed at streamlining the state's confusingly multi-layered court system. Senate Bill 1204, recently introduced by Republican State Sen. Robert Duncan of Lubbock, would establish a panel chosen by Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson to assign "complex cases" to trial courts. Decisions would be based on expertise and resources. Duncan's bill and its companion, House Bill 2906, would also move small claims cases to justices of the peace and reassign the county courts as either small claims or state district courts. This effectively eliminates Texas's county court layer. "Any Texan's experience at the local courthouse should be managed by a rational justice system that behaves the same as its neighboring counties," Duncan wrote in a recent op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle. "We must cut out the inefficiencies and ensure our courthouses are structured to meet the challenges of a global economy and dynamic population increases." Duncan's piece is posted on the website of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a pro-tort reform group that supports the bill. But opponents of SB1204 like N. Alex Winslow, Executive Director of pro-consumer legal watchdog Texas Watch, say it will remove power from Texas's locally-elected judiciary and hand it to an "unaccountable panel." Winslow, in a weekend op-ed Chronicle piece, says this shift "clearly circumvents the electoral process" by "consolidating power in the hands" of the Texas Supreme Court. That's clearly not a situation Texas Watch favors. "Over the past 10 years, the Texas Supreme Court has distinguished itself as staunchly pro-defendant, ruling in favor of polluters, shoddy homebuilders, abusive insurance companies, stingy HMOs and other wrongdoers an average of 70 percent of the time," Winslow wrote. "Now, insurance-backed lobbyists want to give the court more motions to handle," he added. A week earlier, Plano-based attorney J.K. Ivey authored an op-ed published in the Dallas Morning News making similar arguments. He referred to the "Judicial Overhaul Act," as SB1204 and HB2906 are called, "one of the worst proposals ever to come out of Austin." Under the Act "we have a judge we elected drawing a salary, but someone in Austin decided your case was too complex for him or her to hear," Ivey wrote. "Meanwhile, someone we have never heard of decides...justice for you and me in Collin County." Duncan counters that the Lone Star State's seven-tier layer of trial courts is "unwieldy, inefficient and almost impossible for ordinary citizens to understand."