The five judges of Ellis County are unanimous in their ruling – the county needs a third county court at law.
The judges, who work out of the courthouse annex, brought the issue to the county commissioners’ attention during a special workshop Wednesday evening at the Ellis County Courthouse. All five judges signed a letter of intent to the commissioners, stressing the importance of creating a third county court at law.
40th District Judge Bob Carroll opened up remarks by saying that — similarly to how felony criminal cases are divided between the 40th District Court and the 443rd District Court — a third county court is needed to assist with civil matters in the first and second county courts at law.
“There are days where we have had over 150 cases per day set on my docket,” County Court at Law No. 2 Judge Gene Calvert remarked. “How much time should I devote to an individual who is facing jail and give them justice, whether they be guilty or innocent?”
According to court records, the first county court at law was created in Sept. 1983. When the second county court of law was established in 2003, County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Jim Chapman said the estimated population of Ellis County was about 115,000.
Now, that population is at about 180,000 – a 55 percent increase since 2003.
Despite the population growth, Chapman said he and Calvert were able to go through cases efficiently, estimating that approximately 57,000 persons go through their courtrooms every year.
Even with the addition of a third county court at law, however, their work won’t let up – Chapman stated that an estimated 60,000 persons would go through the three courts by the time the third county court at law would be created.
‘The justice system is a core function of the county,” Chapman stated. “Just as citizens expect roads, bridges, fire and police services to be handled at the county level, they also expect the justice system to grow and be able to be there for them whenever they have a legal emergency. We have reached a point where it is difficult for us to be there.”
Chapman stated that there had been so many backlogged cases for Calvert that he’s agreed to handle two-thirds of his backlogged list – which, he said, grows larger and larger each month.
“It will be multiplied hundreds of times during 2019,” Carroll stated. “Our local judicial system is beginning to experience dangerous stress fractures. These are my words, not his – [Calvert] is struggling not to drown, despite his experience and best efforts. We’re dangerously close to missing some of those things that are really critical.”
Carroll explained that the earliest the court could go live would be until January 2021. However, he stressed that they couldn’t wait that long, adding that cases are piling up for the judges day after day.
“It’s like having a bridge that’s ready to go, and you’re like, ‘We don’t have the money for it,’” Calvert expressed. “Do we risk fixing it now and spending the money, or do we wait until a disaster happens and everybody can’t have access to the road?”
County auditor Miykael Reeve presented a proposed budget to the commissioners’ court breaking down the costs that would be associated with creating the court. According to the budget, a total of $410,263 would be needed to build the court, with $380,663 budgeted for employee salaries.
Carroll stated that he knew that was a high cost to bring before the commissioners. However, he stressed the price for putting off the issue would be much more significant to the county’s court system.
“As the judges are scrambling in an unprecedented matter to urgently fill the gap, which faces in the courtroom are not receiving justice?” Carroll stated. “Who do you see? Do you see the parents of the drug addict? The child victim of a heinous crime? The accused? The young man in jail, presumed by law to be innocent but unable to make a bail bond? The single mom? The widower? The child in foster care limbo? The amputee who suffered loss by the drunk driver? The property owner? The business owner? Who do you see?”
Although no action was taken during the workshop, the commissioners did present a resolution requesting that their State Representative John Wray to sponsor legislation that would establish an Ellis County Court at Law No. 3 that would go into effect on Jan. 1 2021.
County judge Todd Little said the county would take further action on the proposed County Court at Law No. 3 during a future commissioners’ court meeting.