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County could seek to cram new courts in crowded courthouse

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday agonized over a proposal to add two more district courts to the already stuffed Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse.

Led by local administrative Judge Lora Livingston, a delegation from the county’s civil and family courts mounted its case based on evidence that the county’s current stable of 15 district judges is being overwhelmed with work. It based that claim on a state-recommended ceiling for the hours a given judge should spend on hearings throughout the year.

District Judge Gisela Triana told the commissioners that the Texas Office of Court Administration has set that ceiling at six hours per day for 215 working days. Using that standard, Triana said the calculations show that the county needs a total of 17.7 judges.

“That means that we are currently behind by 2.7 judges,” Triana explained. “We’re not asking you for 0.7 of a judge, since we don’t know what that looks like, but we are asking for two judges.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty questioned why the judges used only 215 working days in their formula when there are typically closer to 260 working days in a given year.

“You take off perhaps 10 days per year for vacation,” Triana responded. “You take off perhaps five days a year for continuing legal education programs. You take off perhaps five days a year for sick leave. You take off perhaps five days a year for judicial conference meetings. That number starts coming down.”

The county has not sought the creation of a new district court since 2003, and the Legislature did not fulfill that request until 2005. Since then, the county’s population has soared 34 percent, from 893,000 to 1.2 million. Meanwhile, according to Livingston’s team, the number of hearings at the civil courthouse has ballooned from 14,665 in 2009 to 22,224 this year.

Despite the increase in hearings, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt noted that the number of filings has largely stayed constant. She offered that new state laws in recent years could be to blame.

“We’ve had a lot of change in legislation with regard to access to the courts,” said Eckhardt. “So one hypothesis to explore is, with a tightening of access to the courts, the only cases getting into court are the ones that are extremely complex. The ones that aren’t very complex, they’re settling before ever filing through mediation, arbitration, et cetera, et cetera.”

Although the need for new courts may be urgent, the question remains about where to put them. Last year, voters narrowly rejected a $287 million bond that would have built a 520,000-square-foot replacement for the approximately 150,000-square-foot Sweatt building. That facility was originally built in 1931, when the county’s population hovered around 80,000. The courthouse was last expanded in the early 1960s.

County planners are currently hoping to free up some capacity in the Sweatt building by acquiring the former U.S. Courthouse on West Eighth Street, though that plan still rests in the hands of federal officials.

If the county does acquire the 85-year-old building, the refurbishing effort could last until 2020, Strategic Planning Manager Belinda Powell told the court on Tuesday. It would also likely house the county’s probate courts and therefore not provide a significant amount of relief on the Sweatt Courthouse.

The Commissioners Court did not take any action on Tuesday to seek the new district courts. If it ends up seeking approval for the plan from the 85th Legislature when it convenes in January, the courts could be open for business in 2018.

In the meantime, the county’s quest to find a new site on which to build a new civil courthouse is marching forward. At the end of Tuesday’s voting session, the court voted to advance six different properties forward to the next round of consideration. Four are privately held, with their locations undisclosed. The two county-owned properties that will undergo further scrutiny by county planners include the Commissioners Court’s headquarters at 700 Lavaca St. and the site that voters rejected in November, at 308 Guadalupe St.

Eckhardt emphasized that the latter will be used only as a “benchmark” by which all other properties will be measured. The county still plans to work with private developers to figure out the best use for that site.

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