Republican legislators continued their march to expand the judiciary and lessen the influence of Democratic judges as the Texas House May 19 passed a Senate bill that would create a new, statewide intermediate court of appeals.
The proposed Fifteenth Court of Appeals would have exclusive intermediate appellate jurisdiction over cases involving the state or state agencies, including institutions of higher education. The court would be based in Austin but could transact its business in any county deemed necessary and convenient. The court of appeals also would hear appeals from business specialty courts, if those trial courts are created through passage of a separate bill.
Senate Bill 1045 passed on 83-60 vote, largely along party lines. It is now up to the Senate to agree with changes to SB 1045 made by the House or seek appointment of a conference committee to iron out differences, which appear minor. May 29 is the final day of the 2023 legislative session.
The House amended the bill to provide for a chief justice and two justices for the first three years following the court’s creation. Two additional justices could be added after Sept. 1, 2027. Another amendment would require an annual report on the number and types of cases heard by the new court of appeals.
Sen. Joan Huffman, the author of SB 1045, has said the Fifteenth COA jurists would initially be appointed by the governor and then stand for statewide election, like what happens when there is a vacancy on one of the state’s appellate courts.
The new court would lessen the influence of the Third Court of Appeals, which is based in Austin and covers a 24-county region of Central Texas. All six of the justices currently sitting on the Third Court of Appeals are Democrats.
Opponents of the bill have characterized it as a power grab by Republicans frustrated that cases against the state are landing in the hands of judges elected as Democrats.
During Senate floor debate in late March, Huffman, R-Houston, said the Third COA justices are effectively elected by voters of Travis County. “It’s not my intention to insult the justices on the Third Court of Appeals,” she said. “It’s simply a desire for cases of statewide interest to be decided by justices elected statewide.”
After generating significant opposition during committee hearings earlier in the legislative session, there was no House floor debate on the issue. Rep. Andrew Murr, who is carrying Huffman’s bill in the House, said it is appropriate that justices deciding cases of statewide impact be selected by voters statewide.
“Therefore, creating a fifteenth intermediate court of appeals with jurisdiction of civil cases brought by and against the state will allow judges to apply specialized precedent in subject areas important to our entire state, including issues of sovereign immunity, administrative law and constitutional law,” said Murr, a Junction Republican.
The bill was opposed by a coalition of litigation groups representing both plaintiffs and defendants. The Texas Association of Defense Counsel, TEX-ABOTA and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association sent a joint letter to lawmakers in March saying there is no urgent need for the new court. The letter was signed by the organizations’ respective presidents, R. Douglas Rees, Tim Newsom and Laura Tamez.
“There is simply no data or empirical support for the creation of a brand new statewide court of appeals that will be given jurisdiction over matters where other courts of appeals currently have concurrent jurisdiction and are ‘open and dispensing justice,’” they said.
Their letter also raised concerns about the constitutionality of having appellate justices initially appointed by the governor and the expected cost of more than $3 million to create the court.
The other closely watched new courts bill, House Bill 19, would create a system of specialized business district courts that would hear certain high-dollar commercial litigation. The bill passed the Senate earlier this month with several amendments and is awaiting a decision by Rep. Murr whether to agree with the Senate amendments or request the appointment of a conference committee.