By: Ethan Gaitz
On March 6, 2013 Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, Wallace B. Jefferson, delivered the State of the Judiciary address to the Texas 83rd Legislative Session.
At the onset, Chief Justice Jefferson raised the issue as to, “Whether our system of justice is working for the people it has promised to serve.” It became clear to all those listening (and to myself reading) that Jefferson was intent on using this speech to make a long-lasting impression on lawmakers. He would conclude his opening remarks with the following:
Courts exist not to perpetuate the judicial branch for its own sake, but to ensure that the conflicts human beings encounter, whether criminal or civil, are adjudicated in a neutral forum, at an efficient price, producing fair outcomes.
The Chief Justice also made sure to raise his concerns about the costly nature of the legal system and the lack of accessibility to proper legal representation. Many Texans for a variety of reasons, are unable to receive the legal counsel that should be accessible to all.
In fact, nearly six million Texans qualify for legal aid. However, this number only satisfies
about 20% of the needs of indigent Texans. As a result, many Texans are forced to represent themselves in court, leaving them vulnerable to the complexities of a judicial system still working to improve its overall functionality.
Jefferson also commented on the importance that criminal defendants receive sound counsel; he even referenced the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision that made the sixth amendment to the United States Constitution applicable to the states through the incorporation doctrine.
He would augment this previous point by making it known that Texas ranks 48th in the nation in per capita funding for indigent defense. While this figure may alarm some, the Chief Justice noted that this marked serious improvement.
Programs such as the Texas Indigent Defense Commission have been instrumental in the development of programs to increase the delivery of indigent defense services. He was clear that such services are only effective through reasonable financial subsidies from the legislature.
One tangible example of the Commission’s work has appeared in Comal County, Texas. Here, the Defense Commission gave the county a grant to fund a pilot project that will allow indigent defendants the ability to choose a lawyer, rather than receive representation chosen
by a judge or court administrator. This is not the standard practice in the United States, but
is actually very prevalent in England. Such a policy should allow for the attorney to be “more directly aligned with the interests of their clients.” While this method is relatively new, future assessments will likely yield positive results and could lead to changes in other parts of the state.
To complete his thoughts on the criminal justice system, Chief Justice Jefferson referenced the Michael Morton case, in which a man was incarcerated for 25 years until he was exonerated in 2011 as a result of DNA testing. In fact, 117 Texans have been exonerated in the past 25 years. Jefferson was very laudatory of the Legislature’s support of the innocence projects based in Texas’s four public law schools. The work of these organizations has been invaluable, as they have worked to overturn 10 wrongful convictions in Texas. Programs such as these are crucial when one takes into account how important their work is within the context of a legal system notorious for the liberal administration of the death penalty.
The next major issue the Chief Justice addressed was that of overall efficiency within the judicial system. He made a number of recommendations about how to make the system more effective, while also offering up differents methods of how to reduce the cost of litigation without doing so at the expense of litigants’ rights. One example includes the Texas Supreme Court’s recently adopted rules to simplify the proceedings in cases that involve claims for monetary relief less than $100,000. The Supreme Court also adopted a rule allowing trial courts to dismiss cases that have “no basis in law or fact.” All of these issues are meant to remedy the growing concerns over the delayed necessity for tort reform, an issue pervasive throughout the whole country.
The Chief Justice would conclude his remarks that day by stressing the importance of trying to lessen the political influence on the work of judges. He addressed this issue by stating that we should:
Discard our broken system in which judges of enormous talent are removed from office not for ineptitude, but only because they happen to be a member of the wrong political party when partisan winds shift. All of these reforms are encompassed in the judiciary’s obligation to provide access to justice. That phrase is often thought of in terms of providing legal services to the poor. It is that, to be sure, but an accessible justice system requires that even broader segments of our society be able to utilize it. Viewed this way, our remedies must be more expansive as well. Just no single defect created the barriers, there is no unitary solution. So we must marshal all of our forces.
Indeed, it will take time for true reform to take hold, but it will come to have enormous benefits for all.