Featured: As Hidalgo County’s population is quickly approaching almost 900,000, according to the most recent estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, with that growth has come the need for the area’s judicial system to keep up with the increases in criminal and civil cases, according to Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. Canales, who also serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation, in the last few days of the recently completed 86th Texas Legislature, helped shape legislation that authorizes the creation of two county courts-at-laws in Hidalgo County.
“Justice delayed is justice denied” – two county courts at law for Hidalgo County will be created to handle growing number of cases, says Rep. Canales
As Hidalgo County’s population is quickly approaching almost 900,000, according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, with that growth has come the need for the area’s judicial system to keep up with the increases in criminal and civil cases, according to Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.
Canales, who also serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation, in the last few days of the recently completed 86th Texas Legislature, helped shape legislation that authorizes the creation of two county courts-at-laws in Hidalgo County.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Canales said, quoting the long-held legal principle that in order for the legal system to be fair, it should not cause unnecessary delays. “For business owners, consumers, crime victims, people accused of crimes, and individuals from all walks of life who depend on our local judicial system, they deserve to have their day in court in a quick and timely manner. That’s why we need these two new important courts.”
With the passage of the legislation, which goes into effect on September 1, 2019, the two new county courts at law will eventually increase the number of those judicial positions to 1o, which includes one probate court.
“This measure gives the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, which includes the county judge, the ability to beginning planning now for the future, when the new Hidalgo County County Courthouse in Edinburg is scheduled to open for business,” Canales said.
Arnoldo Cantú, Judge, Hidalgo County Court No. 5, along with Albert García, Judge, Hidalgo County Court at Law No. 6, addressed the need for the two new county courts at law during their presentation before the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court in Edinburg on Tuesday, February 26, 2019.
“Unfortunately, with the growth in population, there is growth in crime. We get more family cases, we get more of everything. We are underserved in Hidalgo County,” Cantú said. “We work hard, we try to move the docket, but as it stands, each of our county courts at law has a backlog of more than 2,000 cases. We try to keep up with it, but they keep coming in. The only alternative we see is to get more courts. We have many more people now, we need some courts.”
García said the county courts at law are doing their best despite the legal burdens they face.
“We really are overwhelmed with all the casework, case load that we have. I try to have at least two jury trials per week, sometimes we even have three trials – two jury trials and a bench trial, plus our regular docket, which is overwhelming,” noted García. “All of our colleagues are doing the same thing.”
Under state law, county courts at law play major roles in the state’s judicial system.
Section 25.003 of the Texas Government Code provides statutory county courts, generally designated as county courts at law or statutory probate courts, in the more populous counties. In general, county courts at law have concurrent (similar) jurisdiction with district courts in:
• Civil cases in which the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $200,000; and
• Appeals of final rulings and decisions of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission.
However, the actual jurisdiction of each statutory county court varies considerably according to the statute under which it was created. A few statutory county courts even hear felony cases. In addition, some of these courts have been established to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction in only limited fields, such as civil, criminal, or appellate cases (from justice or municipal courts).
In general, the probate court probates (validates) the wills of deceased persons, declares the heirs of deceased persons who die without a will, establishes guardianship for incapacitated persons and minors, and supervises court-ordered involuntary mental health commitments.
The Probate Court also has jurisdiction to hear lawsuits related to an estate of a decedent or ward as well as actions by or against a personal representative of a decedent’s or ward’s estate. These ancillary cases cover a wide range of topics, from products liability, to fiduciary litigation, to medical malpractice, to family law.
In response to the request from the judges, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court approved a county resolution required by the Texas Legislature that allowed Canales to file his proposal, House Bill 4717, for action by state lawmakers during the 140-day regular session, which ended on Monday, May 27, 2019.
The county resolution was unanimously approved by the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court: Richard Cortéz, Hidalgo County Judge; David L. Fuentes, Commissioner Precinct 1; Eduardo Cantú, Commissioner Precinct 2; Joe M. Flores, Commissioner Precinct 3; and Ellie Torres, Commissioner Precinct 4.
The language of the county resolution follows:
WHEREAS, Statutory County Courts at Law have been created by the Texas Legislature since 1907 to address a local need; and
WHEREAS, the Commissioners Court of Hidalgo County, Texas has found that there is a public need for two additional County Courts at Law and requests they be created by the 86th Legislature; and
WHEREAS, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court recognizes the Office of Court Administration’s analysis indicating the need for the creation of additional courts to administer the existing caseload of the Hidalgo County judicial system as a result of a significant population growth; and
WHEREAS, the Statutory Courts at Law play a very significant role in the County. These courts are the answer to a local need for additional courts to handle heavy caseloads; and
WHEREAS, the Commissioners Court of Hidalgo County, Texas has found that the best interest of the county would best be served by establishing two new County Courts at Law with general jurisdiction the same as County Courts at Law No. 1, No. 2, No. 4., No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court does hereby support legislation creating Hidalgo County Courts at Law No. 9 and No. 10 in the 86th Legislature.
Using his legislative influence and ability to work with lawmakers from both political parties, Canales included language of his original measure, House Bill 4717, as an amendment to Senate Bill 891, whose author is Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
An amendment is any proposed alteration to a bill or resolution as it moves through the legislative process. Amendments to a measure may be proposed by members in their assigned committees or by any member of a chamber during that chamber’s second or third reading consideration of the measure.
Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 891.
An author is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). The sponsor is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.
“Without the help of Sen. Huffman and Rep. Leach, it would have been difficult to have passed my House Bill 4717 because in those final days of the legislative session, hundreds of worthy measures die because time ran out,” Canales said. “I also want to credit Sen. Juan Hinojosa for working with his colleagues in the Senate on behalf of House Bill 4717.
Canales is the author of House Bill 4717 and Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is the sponsor of that measure.
CONGRESSMAN CUELLAR SECURES 100 NEW IMMIGRATION JUDGES IN HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS BILL TO ADDRESS BACKLOG OF COURT CASES AT SOUTHERN BORDER
On Wednesday, May 22, 2019, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo,, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, announced that he secured 100 new immigration judges in the fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).
Each immigration judge is supported by a team; one attorney, one legal assistant; and up to two other positions (additional legal assistant, interpreter, and/or other mission support staff).
In addition to securing immigration judge teams, Cuellar secured funding to ensure these additional immigration judges have adequate court space to conduct immigration court proceedings and language that promotes immigration court efficiency.
Securing New Immigration Judges
For years, Cuellar has made it a priority to place additional immigration judges into border communities.
He helped secure:
• In FY16, language hiring at least 55;
• In FY17, language hiring at least 10 judges;
• In FY18, language hiring at least 100 judges;
• In FY19, language hiring at least 50 judges; and
• In FY20, language hiring at least 100 judges.
For a total of 315 judges.
Immigration Court Space
While authorized 484 Immigration Judges, EOIR only has 426 courtrooms. Cuellar ensured the committee provided adequate funding that supports EOIR’s acquisition of additional court space.
Increasing Court-Efficiency Initiatives
Cuellar’s report language encourages EOIR and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to explore the co-location of DOJ and DHS components with immigration related responsibilities, including immigration courts, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and medical care practitioners.
“The backlog of immigration court cases has expanded at such a significant pace that the system is overworked,” said Cuellar. “The caseload has more than quadrupled since 2006, with more than 850,000 cases backlogged. The amount of immigration judges relative to the increase in incoming cases has caused extensive waiting periods, with the average wait of 746 days. This is not how our immigration judicial system should run.
“We can no longer detain individuals and families at the border or release them in hope that they will return for their court day. Increasing the number of immigration judges is a common-sense solution to the growing number of migrants seeking asylum at the border. Increasing the number of judges does not result in an increase in meritorious asylum claims. Out of every 100 credible fear claims, on average, only about 12 result in a grant of asylum by an immigration judge.
“By deploying more immigration judge teams, we are able to properly adjudicate the individuals and families entering our country while protecting our nation and the border. Promoting the rule of law and enforcing due process is essential to America’s democracy.
“I want thank Appropriations Chairwoman Lowey and Ranking Chairwoman Kay Granger; Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science Subcommittee Chairman Serrano and Ranking Member Aderholt; and committee members, on both sides of the aisle, for working with me to help address the backlog of cases in our immigration courts.”
To view Cuellar’s speech on the Appropriations Committee hearing click here.
To view summary of FY20 Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Bill Appropriations bill click here.
Charlotte Laracy and Leslie Martínez contributed to this article. Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who is the Chair of the House Committee on Transportation, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).