Three new felony courts with a $9.2 million budget are expected to open next week, in what officials say is the final stretch in tackling a backlog of criminal cases that have piled up over the past six years.
The Legislature-approved courts — the 486th, 487th and the 488th District Court — will start their dockets Monday in the criminal courthouse to whittle down the number of felony cases that backed up after Hurricane Harvey and during the pandemic. The introduction of one other court at 1201 Franklin has helped reduce the pending cases to levels not seen since March 2020, when the pandemic shuttered the courts and forced proceedings to continue online or socially distanced. The jail population also increased during the pandemic.
To start, nearly 4,000 cases from the existing 23 felony courts will be picked at random and divided among the new dockets, said Amanda Cain, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the District Courts.
The existing courts tackled an average of 1,460 cases in August — a 38% decrease since the pandemic’s peak in July 2021, county records show.
The number of pending cases began declining in July 2021, around when Harris County’s first new court in decades — the 482nd District Court — opened its doors. The new court was heralded as a step in reducing the backlog and an attempt to catch up with the county’s population growth since the creation of the 351st District Court in 1984, when an estimated 2,757,361 residents called Harris County home.
The U.S. Census Bureau counted 4,731,145 people in the county in 2020.
Judge Latosha Lewis Payne, administrative judge over the civil and criminal courts, expects the new courts to make a dent “immediately.”
“Harris County has experienced staggering growth over the last four decades,” Payne said in a statement. “Next week, the Harris County criminal district courts will be more able to address the needs of victims and the due process rights of defendants.”
The creation of the courts stem from House Bill 3474, which allowed for the creation of the courts and for the county spend millions to staff the new courts with prosecutors, coordinators, clerks, bailiffs and judges.
A cast of rotating jurists will handle the new courts until Gov. Greg Abbot announces who will temporarily oversee those benches, said Susan Brown, judge for the Eleventh Administrative Judicial Region of Texas.
A short-list of lawyers who may run for those new courts in 2024 is already making the rounds among courthouse insiders.
See here and here for some background. Getting three new courts will be very nice and should definitely have a positive effect, but we had been talking about getting six new courts. Maybe we can get some more in 2025. Like the story says, Harris County has grown a lot since the previous court was added in 1984.
I can also confirm that there is a lot of interest in those three new courts – probably a half dozen or so candidates showed up at the most recent Harris County Democratic Party’s CEC meeting to introduce themselves to the precinct chairs. All three eventual nominees will get to run against Greg Abbott-appointed incumbents, which is surely more appealing that primarying someone. You can look forward to the judicial Q&As for them after the filing deadline.