An effort to redistrict and reduce courts of appeals in Texas could have major implications for El Pasoans.
Texas currently has 14 courts of appeals throughout the state, including the 8th Court of Appeals that covers El Paso County and 17 rural West Texas counties.
Proposals being pushed by Republican lawmakers could reduce the number of courts by more than half and group them together in ways that would disenfranchise El Paso voters from being able to elect which justices who represent the community, critics say.
In recent years, Democrats have won an increasing number of intermediate appellate court judgeships in Texas. Critics say the changes being considered by the Republican-controlled Legislature is an attempt to gerrymander the intermediate appellate courts to benefit the GOP.
Senate Bill 11 filed by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston and House Bill 339 filed by state Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford lack specifics, but “relate to the composition of the court of appeals districts.”
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said he and other members of the El Paso delegation are concerned the bills could result in the dismantling of the 8th Court of Appeals.
“That is the worst result we could reach in this type of discussion. That means that under the current system where we get to elect people who we know and people who know us, people that live where we live — that would be taken away. I think that’s a very, very big effect on access to justice for a community like ours.”
Concerns also stem from a report published by Texans for Lawsuit Reform that outlines various propositions to redistrict the courts.
TLR describes itself as “Republicans, Democrats and Independents from across Texas. We are small business owners, homemakers and community volunteers. We are lawyers who want the civil justice system in Texas to be efficient and fair.”
Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which also has a political action committee, has become a dominant force in financing legislative races. The group actively pushes reforms and has outlined its priorities for the current 87th Legislative session, which includes redistricting the appellate courts.
Among the recommendations TLR lists in the report would be to either combine Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso, and Eastland appellate courts, which would place El Paso in a Republican district, or to combine San Antonio, El Paso and Corpus Christi, which would place Democrats in one district, leaving the remainder of the state in Republican majority districts.
Lucy Nashed, communications director for TLR, said in an emailed statement that the organization has been studying the issue since 2007.
Nashed said among the reasons that the courts need to be redistricted are that Texas’ appellate courts have overlapping jurisdictional boundaries and bisect trial court districts. A single trial judge in Texas can answer to as many as four different appellate courts. Some courts are overloaded while others don’t have enough cases. She said because of this, cases are often bounced from court to court, which prolongs the time it takes for an appeal.
“The paper serves only to begin the discussion. It is ultimately up to the Legislature to decide if and how to address the inefficiencies in our state’s intermediate appellate court system,” Nahsed said in the statement.
State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said moves to redistrict would dilute El Paso’s ability to elect appellate justices and disenfranchise El Paso. No Republican has been elected to the three-member 8th Court of Appeals since 1988.
“Redistricting is always very politically motivated. It’s about who has get’s what, it’s about keeping and managing power, and I think this consolidation is a move to do that,” Blanco said. “The delegation here in El Paso, we’re going to fight to make sure that that seat is based here in El Paso, that our community and the West Texas counties have a voice and a say and access to the court.”
Eighth Court of Appeals Chief Justice Yvonne Rodriguez said part of the concern arising with the shell bills being filed is that no details are being shared about what could happen.
“I don’t have any idea, and neither does anybody else know what it would look like. (They’re) keeping it under wraps until the last possible moment, and then they’re going to spring it. So it doesn’t give you any time to really mount a defense against it,” Rodriguez said. “So it’s kind of like fighting a phantom, because I don’t know what that plan exactly entails. But that TLR report, I think one of those plans is a blueprint for it.”
Rodriguez said if the appellate courts are lumped into mega districts, not only would El Pasoans be disenfranchised, but it could have financial implications for the region as well.
“We have an annual budget of $1.7 million which directly impacts the El Paso economy and employs 18 people including the justices. Consolidating the court to either Midland, Fort Worth or San Antonio is a net loss of those funds and jobs,” Rodriguez said.
She also said the 8th Court of Appeals is a partner of UTEP’s Law School Preparatory Institute.
“This critical program has provided a pipeline for El Pasoans intent on becoming lawyers and contributed to diversity of the profession across the state. One of my staff attorneys is a graduate of the program,” Rodriguez said.
John Mobbs, a longtime El Paso appellate attorney, said judges are elected to reflect the community’s values. If the redistricting occurs, an appeals court justice hundreds of miles away could rule on an El Paso case.
“We’re electing people who we think will ensure that trials are conducted fairly for all the litigants and ensure that justice is equal to everyone,” Mobbs said. “I think that having to tell a litigant that — well now someone off in San Antonio, or Corpus Christi, or hundreds of miles away somewhere else, is going to review the case and decide (whether) the outcome was right — does not inspire confidence in the judiciary.”
Mobbs also said there could be financial implications for litigants if attorneys have to travel hundreds of miles across the state for appeals hearings. Lawyers appealing cases at the 8th Court of Appeals do so in Downtown El Paso and litigants can easily attend the hearings.
“But if it’s off in another city, then it’s harder for the litigant to attend, and it’s more expensive for the litigant to pay for their attorney to go,” Mobbs said.
Mobbs said if El Pasoans want to continue to have a voice in who serves on the courts of appeals, they should reach out to legislators to let them know they oppose redistricting.
Moody said the El Paso delegation will be closely monitoring how the shell bills progress throughout the legislative session.
“Unless someone can show me otherwise, there is no need to engage in this. It is not a good use of our time, particularly where our time is short, and it is going to be very difficult to pass things this session, given the fact that we’re operating in a pandemic,” Moody said.
Cover photo: The 8th Court of Appeals currently is comprised of, from left, Chief Justice Yvonne Rodriguez and Justices Jeff Alley and Gina Palafox. (Photo courtesy of 8th Court of Appeals)