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Senator scraps controversial bill to reduce Texas appellate courts

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A controversial bill designed to redistrict and reduce the courts of appeals in Texas has been withdrawn after it drew sharp criticism during a public hearing in Austin last week.

Senate Bill 11, filed by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would have reduced the number of appeals courts by more than half and would have grouped them together in ways that disenfranchised minority voters, critics said.

Texas currently has 14 courts of appeals throughout the state, including the 8th Court of Appeals, which covers El Paso County and 17 rural West Texas counties. The proposal would have reduced the number of courts to seven mega districts. 

“The battle has been won, but the war is not over. It is imperative (that) the unquestioned impartiality of our judges be maintained. SB 11 jeopardized that. We must continue to be ever vigilant against the partisan influences upon the third branch of government,” said Eighth Court of Appeals Chief Justice Yvonne Rodriguez.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a major donor to legislative races, released a report last year that called for reducing the number of Texas appellate courts. Critics said the proposal came because Democrats were increasingly successful in appellate court races in Texas.

About 30 people testified against the bill. Details of the proposal were not distributed until the night before the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence hearing on April 1. El Pasoans testifying against the bill included Rodriguez, County Commissioner David Stout and Assistant County Attorney Michael Gómez.

The current intermediate courts of appeals in Texas.

Huffman, chair of the committee, sent a letter withdrawing the bill, April 8, saying there would not be enough time during the current Legislative Session to move forward.

“At the Senate Jurisprudence Committee hearing on April 1, we heard feedback from various stakeholders and interest groups about the committee substitute to SB 11. We listened to the input and are giving careful consideration to the comments and concerns that were voiced,” Huffman said in the letter. “Restructuring appellate courts to improve efficiency and equalize workload is a significant undertaking, and we have dedicated considerable time to addressing this issue. But, we also know that this is a nuanced issue with many stakeholders, and we will  continue to develop a plan for the appellate courts.”

Critics of the bill voiced multiple concerns during testimony. They asserted Huffman did not include key stakeholders, including justices and attorneys, about the potential impacts of restructuring the appeals courts.

John Mobbs, a longtime El Paso appellate attorney, had raised concerns that redistricting could result in appeals being decided by justices hundreds of miles away from El Paso and unfamiliar with the community.

“It’s good to see that reason has prevailed in the Legislature. The current system works well for individuals with cases before the appellate courts.  Whatever perceived problems the appellate court system might have, the proposed restructuring was not going to solve those problems,” Mobbs 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)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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