November 24, 2014
by Angela Morris, Texas Lawyer

A senator-elect who unseated a six-term incumbent has prefiled legislation that turns the heads of many legal observers.

Sen.-elect Don Huffines, R-Dallas, has proposed deadlines for appellate courts and punishments for justices who don’t meet deadlines. He also proposed that high court jurists should only serve two terms in office, and that most of the state’s judges—as well as county and district attorneys—should face limits of eight years in office.

The senator-elect filed Senate Bill 64 on Nov. 10, the first day that lawmakers could prefile bills. It would impose deadlines upon the Texas Supreme Court and intermediate appellate courts to act on petitions for review.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said that his court and the intermediate appellate courts are already issuing opinions in a timely manner.

“I think it tries to prioritize speed over quality, and you know the courts’ first and most important responsibility is to get it right. We recognize that decisions need to be timely, but I think the courts are working very hard to be timely, and I don’t think you can treat all case alike. Some are simple and some are complex. Some take longer than others,” Hecht said about SB 64.

Under the bill, the Supreme Court would have to deny a petition within 90 days of filing by not requesting a response. It would deny a petition within 180 days of filing by not requesting briefing. It it requested briefing, it would have to grant or deny a petition within 300 days.

SB 64 would mandate that the Supreme Court issue decisions all of its cases during the same term of court, with some exceptions.

Every justice would have to take responsibility for meeting deadlines. If a justice did not comply, the chief justice would have to: prohibit a justice from participating in oral arguments; reassign the justice’s opinions to be written by others; prohibit him from participating in new cases; and refer him to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Intermediate appellate courts would also face deadlines, and their justices would face the same enforcement measures, as well as budgetary consequences.

Regarding the deadline enforcement measures in the bill, Hecht said, “It’s better for chief justices to work with their court rather than being seen as punishing judges.”

Term Limits

During Huffines’ campaign, he expressed support for term limits.

“When term limits are in place, the state legislature will be more responsible with legislation, because after serving their constituents in Austin, they will have to live under the laws they have created while in office,” said Huffines’ website.

But the legislation he filed, Senate Joint Resolution 6, would apply to more than just lawmakers. SJR 6 would affect nearly the entire Texas judiciary and county and district attorneys.

The resolution proposes a constitutional amendment that would bar Texas Supreme Court justices and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges from reelection if they had previously been elected to two full terms. The clock would start in 2016.

SJR 6 also applies to “every district office or office of a political subdivision of this state that is filled by popular election.” The definition does not touch intermediate appellate court justices, but it would include district judges, county court-at-law judges, justices of the peace and county and district attorneys. They would be ineligible for reelection if they had served eight years or more. The clock would start on Jan. 1, 2016.

Hecht said that when it comes to term limits, judges should be treated differently than state lawmakers.

“Judges are different because you expect a certain amount of legal knowledge, experience. The best trial judges are the ones who have been around and know how to handle cases in their dockets, so it’s different than being a representative who meets in session only for a few months every other year,” he said. “Term limits for judges just deprives the bench of the experience that is important in being a good judge. I think that frequent turnover creates uncertainty and instability that hurts the bar, the public and the law.”

Huffines, a nonlawyer and owner of Dallas-based Huffines Communities, a real estate development business, didn’t return a call or email seeking comment.

In the March Republican primary, he won 50.63 percent of the vote to unseat Sen. John Carona, according to the Texas secretary of state.

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