By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON The deadline passed Sunday for the governor to veto a bill denying Bell County a fifth district court.
Senate Bill 1189, allowing for the creation of the 426th District Court in Bell County, went to Gov. Rick Perry on June 3 for his signature, giving him until June 19 to veto it. With the deadline expired, Bell Countys fifth district court seems likely in coming.
The new district court will be ready to hear cases in January 2007, allowing enough time for someone to campaign and be elected judge of the 426th District Court, said Bell County Judge Jon Burrows.
We had a choice between this or the governor appointing someone, Burrows said. We thought this would be best.
Potential nominees would be able to cast their name for district judge in December. The election would give enough time for the new district courthouse complex to be completed, allowing whoever is elected to move, Burrows said.
The new courthouse, to be finished in May 2006, was designed with an extra district court in mind.
The 426th District Court will be a court of general jurisdiction, covering both criminal and civil cases.
Support for a fifth district court has been growing for some time.
Since 1980, Bell County has had four district courts. In that 25-year span, the countys population has doubled.
The four district judges are not disposing of as many cases as are coming through, which is leading to a backlog, said Judge Rick Morris of the 146th District Court.
In 2004, Bell County had 12,204 cases added to the docket with a population of 255,736. In comparison that same year, McLennan Countys population was 213,517 and had 7,946 cases added, and Williamson Countys population was 249,967 with 5,476 added.
SB 1189 will also create a district court in Williamson County as will Brazoria, Cameron, Comal, Dallas, Fort Bend, Hays, Hidalgo, Travis and Webb counties, plus the combined judicial district of Blanco, Burnet, Llano and San Saba counties.
Bell Countys population in 2005 plus Lampasas County, which Judge Joe Carroll of the 27th District Court covers is 275,762. The county has four district judges covering five courtrooms.
The number of cases handled by judges in Bell County in 2004 was 2,780; McLennan County, 2,158; and Williamson County, 1,183. The statewide average number of cases disposed of per judge is 1,893.
McLennan County received a fifth district court that will be effective Sept. 1. Last year Bell Countys population was 42,219 more than McLennan County, with 622 cases more cases added.
Why have we been doing such a good job? Judge Morris asked during a public hearing at a recent commissioners court meeting. By liberal use of the visiting judges program.
The visiting judges program consists of senior district judges and former district judges. A visiting judge is paid 85 percent of an active judges pay.
But the budget for the visiting judges has been slashed, making it impossible to rely on.
Earlier in the year, Bell County commissioners and the Bell County Bar Association endorsed resolutions supporting the creation of a fifth district court.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org