Members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court are considering cutting the pay of state district judges over ongoing performance and accounting concerns.
As the court drew to a close earlier this month, Commissioners J.J. Koch and John Price called the body’s attention to the alleged issues.
“Commissioner Price, did you want to touch on judicial performance as well?” Koch asked from across the table.
Price began the discussion by explaining, “On judicial performance, one of the problems which I got is I’m still not … getting, at least from the district judges’ side, a protocol that will help us.”
The problems the commissioner referred to have their roots in changes made to the judicial system during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic, criminal trials in Dallas County were suspended from March 2020 until June 2021.
The closure created a massive backlog of cases. To address this, the commissioners court established two “Backlog Courts” using more than $3.5 million of federal taxpayer money allocated by the American Rescue Plan Act passed by the U.S. Congress. One handled misdemeanor charges, and the other handled felonies.
Price pointed out that the “misdemeanor judges don’t have the same issue. The district judges got a problem.”
He suggested that the way the district judges are attempting to resolve the backlog is not only ineffective but presents an additional problem as it “doesn’t give [the commissioners court] a good audit trail.”
Price expressed deep concerns over a potential “audit nightmare.”
Due to the backlog and alleged lack of proper accounting, the commissioners fear that if an audit occurred in the future concerning the distribution of the American Rescue Plan money they would not be able to provide a sufficient account of the funds granted to the Backlog Courts.
“I just want to make sure the accounting is such that the [Office of Inspector General], the [U.S.] Treasury [Department], they’re not going to come back on us,” Price stated. “We’ve got to be able to track all of this.”
Another concern the commissioners expressed is that if the county actually does close 90% of the criminal cases in its court system over a five-year period, it could lose at least $50 million of grants from the governor’s office.
Koch explained, “We had the tremendous push to get enough cases, so we didn’t lose $50 million in funding. That was embarrassing. … Now we’re going to face a pretty embarrassing situation if we cannot account for what we spent to the federal government for that backlog court.”
Price and Koch floated the idea of docking the judges’ pay by as much as $18,000 if sufficient changes are not made to improve accounting and reduce the backlog.
The tension between the commissioners court and the felony court district judges has been ongoing, with several district judges pushing back against the allegations.
A video released on behalf of several district judges in response to a similar disagreement with the commissioners court claimed, “Our Dallas County judges have worked tirelessly to bring about much-needed reform to the criminal justice system. … They never stopped working.”
Additionally, the judges sent a report to the commissioners court disputing the accuracy of their numbers. The judges insisted that the allegation of a massive backlog “is simply not true.”
“The ‘Criminal Case Backlog Data’ being relied upon by the commissioner’s court is inaccurate,” read the report.
Dallas County encompasses 32 district courts, each run by a judge elected by popular vote. Out of these, 17 judges specifically handle the felony courts.
Although the judges receive most of their salary from the state government, Dallas County supplements their pay by $18,000 annually per judge — totaling $306,000 for all 17 judges.