Breckenridge Texan

County Commissioners decide against establishing County Court

County Commissioners decide against establishing County Court
March 05
16:40 2019

In an emergency called meeting Tuesday morning, March 5, the Commissioners Court considered a proposed legislative bill that would have re-established a constitutional county court in Stephens County. However, after discussing the issue for about an hour and receiving additional input from County Attorney Gary Trammel, the commissioners voted to not pursue the legislation.

The meeting had been called by Stephens County Judge Michael Roach because on Monday, March 4, he received the wording for a bill that State Rep. Mike Lang was planning to propose to the legislators on Friday. Lang represents District 60, which includes Stephens County, and was proposing the bill at the request of Stephens County officials.

The idea of re-establishing a constitutional county court in Stephens County has been one of Roach’s goals since before he took office in January. In late December, he counted it in his top four issues.

At that time, he said that in 1939, the State of Texas exempted Stephens and Shackelford counties from some of the duties assigned to the county courts. A bill passed by the Texas House and Senate and signed by the governor, limits the types of cases handled by the two courts. Some other counties in the state also have similar exceptions.

Today in Stephens County, 80 years after that law was signed, misdemeanor cases are still heard in the district court, rather than in a county court.

Roach explained in Tuesday morning’s meeting that he wanted to consider the county court if it would save money for the local taxpayers. The main cost-saving aspect would be having the ability to try misdemeanor cases every week in a county court instead of having to wait for available time in the district court; that process would move inmates out of the county jail more quickly, he said.

However, Trammel addressed the commissioners court and said that even with the opportunity to try misdemeanor cases in a county court, many of the cases could still take weeks or even months before they could be tried because of issues beyond the control of the court. For example, many cases are delayed while results from drug tests or reports from law enforcement agencies are compiled.

When asked by Roach, Trammel said he thought there were some things county officials could do that might speed up the process without establishing a county court. The main tactic that was discussed includes meeting with the various entities involved in the criminal justice system, such as the sheriff’s office, police department and Department of Public Safety, as well as the justice of the peace and municipal judge, to see if anything can be done to get reports completed in a timely manner, attorneys appointed more quickly when necessary, have bonds reduced when applicable, etc.

Roach pointed out, though, that there is a problem in Stephens County that needs to be addressed. “Eastland County Jail, with 100 beds, usually keeps about the average population Stephens County does with 48 beds. They have twice the population that we do, plus they have twice their population comes through on Interstate 20, and they keep a lower daily average than Stephens County. We have a problem,” he said. “No doubt about it, we have a problem keeping too many inmates in our jail.”

Before Trammel spoke at the meeting, Roach had been working from the idea that the county could save thousands of dollars by getting inmates out of the county jail through a re-established county court that would work quicker than the district court. The main expense of having to hire an occasional court reporter would have been offset by greatly reducing the number of days inmates spent in jail, he said.

However, after listening to Trammel’s explanation of the system and his assessment that many cases wouldn’t necessarily move forward any faster with a county court than they do with the district court, Roach changed directions.

“What I’d like to do is actually propose that we not do the county court at this time,” Roach said. “Let’s see what changes we can make internally, amongst the agencies that are involved and get, to the best of our ability, those long-term inmates – and I’m talking about the 30-dayers for misdemeanor cases – reduced as much as possible and see what we can do without the court.”

Roach noted that if after two years, Stephens County hasn’t solved the problem, the commissioners can seek the re-establishment of a county court again during the next legislative session.

The County Judge made the formal motion to not pursue the bill for re-establishing a county court in Stephens County, and all four commissioners agreed with him.


Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

Cutline, top photo: During an emergency called Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning, March 5, Stephens County Judge Michael Roach, center, discusses the idea of re-establishing a county court with the commissioners. (Photo by Tony Pilkington/Breckenridge Texan)

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