The very last bill to pass out of the 82nd Texas Legislature will change the operation and administration of the state’s judicial branch in ways that officials say will make the courts more efficient. “It’s a miracle — a miracle the bill passed,” says Rep. Tryon Lewis (pictured), R-Odessa, who authored House Bill 79 in the special session. “It’s been a long time; it’s been a three-session bill,” he says. Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, says, “Over the years we’ve had a court system that’s been put together one piece at a time. We’re trying to deal with it in a more uniform way.” Duncan was involved in attempts to pass the judicial-system reforms in 2007, 2009 and the 2011 regular session. When the bill died this year, Lewis rewrote it, emphasizing its fiscal impact, and re-introduced it in the special session, which the governor had called to deal with fiscal matters, among other topics. Lewis says it was stressful seeing H.B. 79 yet again bump up against the final deadline of the special session on June 29. “I’m very relieved it got done and is now heading to the governor,” Lewis says. The bill becomes law unless the governor vetoes by July 19. One significant provision in H.B. 79 would make it easier for district courts to transfer cases and for district judges to preside in another district court if a judge were away for any reason. Another major provision creates uniform jurisdictional limits, functions, rules and definitions for county courts-at-law. The only provision that caused some controversy in the regular session affects justices of the peace, who preside over justice and small claims courts. The bill merges those two functions into one, so JPs would hear all small claims within justice court, and the justice courts would adopt the procedures currently used in small claims courts, which are fairly informal. The final version of the bill contains specific instructions for the Supreme Court to create new JP procedures that are informal enough for ordinary people to understand without the need to hire lawyers. “There were some concerns by justices of the peace and by members that the alterations being made would somehow make it more difficult for individuals to represent themselves and go in court without a lawyer,” explains Lewis. The Office of Court Administration is poised to take action to implement some provisions in H.B. 79. When asked his thoughts upon the bill’s passage, OCA Director Carl Reynolds says, “My thought was: We have our work cut out for us.” Several years ago, Reynolds served on a committee that helped identify needed reforms to the judicial system.
-- Angela Morris