By Michelle Guffey
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON Bell County district judges have asked the state Senate to create an additional district court.
Bell County has had four district courts since 1980, but since that time, the population has doubled.
The time is now, said Judge Rick Morris of the 146th District Court.
Morris said the four district judges are not disposing of as many cases as are coming through, leading to a backlog.
In 2004, Bell County, with a population of 255,736, had 12,204 cases added to the docket. McLennan County, with a population of 213,517, had 7,946 cases added that year. Williamson County had 5,746 cases added to the docket. Its population is 249,967. These numbers were obtained from the annual report of the Texas Judicial System, fiscal year 2004.
During that same year, judges in Bell County disposed of 2,780 cases; McLennan County, 2,158; and Williamson County, 1,183. The statewide average number of cases disposed of per judge was 1,893.
We have survived by liberal use of visiting judges, Morris said.
A visiting judge is paid 85 percent of an active judges pay. However, the visiting judges budget has been slashed to the point that it cannot be relied upon, Morris said. It is no longer an effective tool for the courts. Cases will become backlogged.
A bill has been filed, sponsored by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, authorizing a fifth district court in Bell County. Morris said the bill does not have an effective date yet. I imagine it would be sometime after were in the new building, he said, referring to the new district courts complex being built off Loop 121 in Belton. My best guess would be January 2007.
It couldnt come too early, Morris said.
A district judges salary and benefits are paid by the state. County Commissioner Richard Cortese said a new district court would have an impact on the state budget. Startup costs for a new court would be about $200,000.
A lot of times local bills dont impact the state budget, but this one would, Cortese said.
Cortese said the commissioners court has not taken a position on it yet. It has until mid-March to be billed, he said.
Morris said that while a district judge is paid by the state, the county would have to pay for staff. The new district court building will have an additional courtroom.
We are going to try to have a new courtroom without additional staff, at first, except for a court reporter, Morris said.
Morris said he believes an additional district court is a good possibility.
So long as Bell County is supporting it, I believe the state will be receptive to doing it, he said.
McLennan County, with fewer cases added each year than Bell County, received a fifth district court. Cortese said what the state will look at is whether the Bell County district judges workload is heavy enough to justify a fifth court.
I believe it does, Cortese said. Their case load is definitely going up.
Morris said that in the state of Texas, Bell County has the No. 1 divorce rate in the county per capita.
We have just grown, he said.
Morris said the county cant afford not to have a fifth district court. Justice delayed is justice denied, he said.
In 1998, Bell County had 7,867 cases added and 7,028 were disposed of, an average of 1,757 per judge. Bell Countys district judges include Judge Joe Carroll of the 27th District Court, Judge Gordon Adams of the 169th District Court and Judge Martha Trudo of the 264th District Court.
Judge Carroll handles one-half of all criminal cases and one-fourth of all domestic cases. The 27th District Court includes Lampasas County.
Judge Morris handles one-half of all civil cases, one-fourth of all domestic cases and the entire child protective services docket.
Judge Trudo handles one-half of all criminal cases and one-fourth of all domestic cases.
Judge Adams handles one-half of all civil cases, one-fourth of all domestic cases and the entire tax docket.
We have the workload; we have the need; we need to do it, he said.
Contact Michelle Guffey at firstname.lastname@example.org