Proposed Criminal Court Plan Prompts Concern

Tarrant County commissioners meeting
Tarrant County commissioners meeting | Image by NBC 5 DFW

Tarrant County commissioners will consider a proposal to reorganize many positions in the administration of criminal courts at a meeting on Tuesday, which would result in many positions falling under the administrative authority of the county.

“The judicial branch is the third branch of government,” said Criminal District Court Judge George Gallagher, reported KERA News. “And this is, in my opinion, a potential takeover [with a] chilling effect upon the ability of that branch of government to do its job.”

The administration of the county’s 21 criminal courts is made up of bailiffs, magistrate support officers, case managers, and other functionaries. All these employees are currently overseen by an administrative head who reports directly to the county’s 21 criminal district judges. Gregory Shugart currently holds that position.

The proposed reorganization would see a new department established — the Department of Courts Administration — which would oversee the county’s criminal, civil, probate, and family courts. More than 60 administrative positions in the criminal courts, including the administrative head, would be transferred to this new department.

At issue is the massive growth that the criminal courts’ administration has seen in the last several years. Before October 2019, there were 17 positions in the county’s pretrial program — that number now stands at 28, an almost 65% increase.

Shugart claimed that the increase in staff allowed the pretrial program to operate 24/7.

“Our magistrate support officers do so much more than what the pretrial division did,” Shugart said, per KERA. “They prepare all documentation, run the public safety assessment, make sure everything that the judge needs is prepared and put into a format for the judge to review to make bond decisions.”

Commissioner Alisa Simmons said she was unhappy with how the proposal was handled, taking both the commissioners and the judges by surprise. She claimed she first heard about the proposal, which appears to have been in the works for months, at a March 19 commissioners court meeting.

“This process reflects a disturbing lack of both transparency and professionalism from our new county administrator,” Simmons wrote in a statement, per KERA. “I should have been notified more than two weeks in advance of voting — on a proposed move this significant.”

“It is not the role of the commissioners court to handle the affairs of our judiciary, especially the affairs of our criminal justice system that deals with literal life and death decisions of our citizens every day,” she added.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, issues around transparency have also plagued Dallas, with polling indicating a broad swath of Dallas residents of various political persuasions desired greater transparency on the part of the City of Dallas. In Dallas, transparency has been a hot-button topic for some because of the City’s long history of fraud, corruption, and bribery cases.

The Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association board issued a statement Friday expressing concern that the reorganization proposal was conducted in “secret” without input from the judges and other interested parties. They also echoed Gallagher’s concern about preserving the separation of powers.

County Commissioner Manny Ramirez, however, said he supports the proposal.

“I think the effort here really is just to clean up the system and ensure that courts administration can function as efficiently and as effectively as possible,” said Ramirez, per KERA. “If county administration is proposing organizational changes that will enhance the administration of the justice system and allow us to operate more effectively, then I owe it to the Tarrant County taxpayers to take a look at that proposal.”

According to KERA News, the move will reportedly result in an estimated savings of $173,805.

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