| Austin American-Statesman
Williamson County commissioners have approved a resolution asking the Legislature to establish a new district court and a new court-at-law for the county.
District courts in the county had a 20% increase in case filings between 2015 and 2019, according to a study by the state office of court administration.
Ronald Morgan, the county’s director of district court administration, presented the study to the Commissioners Court on Tuesday. It said there were 7,446 cases filed in Williamson County courts in 2015 and 8,909 cases filed in 2019.
“We have seen many changes in the past 10 years as the Williamson County population has soared,” 425th District Judge Betsy Lambeth told the commissioners. “We’ve gone from a mostly rural community to an urban community and our justice system needs to grow with it.”
Between April 2010 and July 2019, the county’s population grew from 422,504 to 590,551, the study said. It said the population is estimated to grow to more than 830,000 from 2020 to 2030.
The county court-at-laws handle misdemeanor criminal cases as well as civil cases, probate cases and mental health cases. They had a 318% increase in mental health cases and a 32% increase in probate cases between 2015 and 2019, the study said.
The increase in probate cases can be attributed to the population increase in the county, according to the study. It said the “enormous increase” in mental health cases was due to two psychiatric hospitals opening in Williamson County.
“Mental health cases were previously diverted to Travis County, where the Statutory Probate Court handled the legal issues related to hospitalization,” the study said.
The county currently has five district courts and four county court-at-laws. The last time the Legislature established a new district courtroom and a new county court at law in Williamson County was in 2005, according to the study.
A new district courtroom would cost the county an estimated $447,096 in the first year if the court just handled civil cases, according to county figures. If the new district courtroom also handled criminal cases, the estimated first-year cost would be $1.7 million because more staff would have to be added, the figures showed.
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said he wanted commissioners to consider having a new district courtroom also handle criminal cases because it would mean those cases could move faster through the system.
Commissioner Valerie Covey said the county is asking the Legislature to approve a general jurisdiction district courtroom that gives the court the flexibility to hear both civil and criminal cases.
Dick said if the new district courtroom handled only civil cases, it would increase the work for his staff.
Currently, two of the county’s five district courtrooms handle both civil and criminal cases, a split that gives the district attorney’s staff time to prepare their cases, Dick said after the commissioners meeting on Tuesday. But if all the civil cases were handled by a new district court, his prosecutors wouldn’t have as much time to prepare for criminal cases, he said.
The study also said the estimated cost for the first year of the county court-at-law would be $563,994. If the court-at-law also handled criminal cases, child protective service cases, mental health and probate cases, the estimated first-year cost would be $2.1 million, according to the study.
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Those estimates do not include the cost for facilities. The county is already building a new courtroom at the Williamson County Justice Center but still needs chambers for a new district judge and the jury, said Morgan.
The new courtroom the county is building was intended to provide space for visiting judges, he said.
Covey said the justice center has space for a new judge’s chambers and a jury room because it is no longer using its jury impaneling room. The jury impaneling room is not being used because the county is using a remote virtual process to screen prospective jurors, she said.
The county started the remote process to screen jurors during the coronavirus pandemic and will continue to do so after it ends.
The county also has a courtroom that is only used part of the time by a visiting judge for child-support cases that it can use for a new full-time county court-at-law courtroom, Morgan said.