Dallas County’s felony court judges are on track to resolve more cases this year than they did before the pandemic despite county commissioners’ accusations they aren’t working, a Dallas Morning News analysis of court data shows.
County commissioners, who control the budget for the courthouse and jail, repeatedly blamed judges this year for the growing number of felony cases and threatened to reduce their pay. The News’ analysis shows judges disposed of more cases each month in 2022 than in 2019. The courts’ caseload also rose as prosecutors filed more cases.
The two most vocal critics are J.J. Koch, a Republican, and John Wiley Price, a Democrat.
When presented with The News’ analysis, Koch and Price acknowledged the increase in cases filed by prosecutors but said they still believed judges aren’t working hard enough.
Price said the data “sounds nice,” but he pointed to a brimming jail population, including people who have waited years for their day in court. He balances that against the number of trials judges hold. The average monthly number of juries selected through August 2019 was 24, compared to 17 through August this year.
Koch said an increase in felony court trials would raise his satisfaction with how much the judges work.
“That’s the only thing left for them to tackle,” Koch said. “They just need to try some more cases, and then I would say that they’ve fulfilled their duty.”
In 2019, the average number of monthly cases disposed of in Dallas County was 1,863. So far this year, Dallas County felony court judges disposed of an average of 2,188 cases each month.
The News’ analysis found an increase in indictments this year skews the numbers commissioners used. The Dallas County district attorney’s office has filed hundreds of indictments this year for old cases, ballooning the number of “active and pending” felony cases.
In response to The News’ data, state District Judge Stephanie Huff, the presiding judge for the Dallas felony courts, said judges saw a spike in indictments beginning in March.
“These case filings far exceed pre-pandemic levels,” Huff wrote in a statement to The News. “The courts do not have control over case filings.”
Price and Koch used the “active and pending” felony caseload to allege judges aren’t working. When a grand jury indicts someone, the case becomes “active and pending” and remains in that status until the case is disposed.
Commissioners point to state data that shows Dallas County is one of the two largest counties where the number of pending cases grew throughout 2022. Travis County was the other.
Despite Dallas County’s recent increase, its average number of pending felony cases remained largely consistent. Over the last three years, state data also shows, Harris, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis counties saw higher percentage increases of pending felony cases.
Price and Koch did not incorporate data that shows judges’ increased dispositions in their argument.
Most commissioners are now focused on working with the judges. From the beginning, County Judge Clay Jenkins called for cooperation. Commissioners Theresa Daniel and Elba Garcia said while some felony court judges may not work as hard as others, it is not fair to blame all of them for a case backlog. Daniel would like to look more closely at other counties to see what has worked.
But Price and Koch still say judges aren’t working hard enough.
In a Commissioners Court meeting on Oct. 18, Price said everyone misses the crux of his argument — that judges are responsible for the people waiting in jail.
Price said nearly 900 people are waiting in the county jail for felony charges to be filed. Judges do not file the cases. Prosecutors do.
All Texas counties report court statistics to the Office of Court Administration, which is under the direction of the Texas Supreme Court.
Throughout the pandemic, the agency said, Dallas tackled its backlog of cases better than most. Dallas’ clearance rate for criminal cases from March 2020 to August 2022 is about 95%, OCA data shows. That means the courts resolved 95 out of every 100 cases filed by either a jury verdict, plea or other outcome like a dismissal.
“When you look at that time frame, if you compare [Dallas County] to the rest of the 10 largest jurisdictions, they’re one of the best,” said Megan LaVoie, OCA’s administrative director.
Texas’ largest county, Harris, had a clearance rate of 87%. Tarrant and Bexar counties were above 90% but tracked below Dallas County. Travis County outperformed the rest of the state’s largest counties with a 96% clearance rate.
Trials aren’t the only way for judges to dispose of cases. Most cases end in pleas, not trials.
Just the possibility of trials can urge defendants to take plea deals. Prosecutors recently have offered better deals, leading more defendants to accept plea deals instead of risking more prison time with a trial, longtime Dallas defense lawyer Kenneth Weatherspoon said.
“You have to look beyond the raw numbers,” Weatherspoon said, “because the raw numbers won’t tell you the reason behind the spike.”
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said his office has offered more deals to move cases along that might not be a slam dunk in court.
More felony cases filed
Even as judges resolved more cases, prosecutors filed more than they typically do, state data shows. Felony indictments statewide are up 7% from last year, LaVoie said.
Creuzot said his office has a backlog of its own. Creuzot said these cases are awaiting a decision from prosecutors to move forward with law enforcement’s charges, reject them or send them back for further work.
The number of cases grand juries needed to hear expanded to 9,105 by January, DA’s office spokeswoman Claire Crouch said. It was reduced to 4,469 as of October, Crouch said.
As a result, prosecutors sent more cases to judges, leading to the spike in overall pending cases.
In 2019, before the pandemic, Dallas County prosecutors filed a monthly average of 1,998 cases. Filings dipped during the pandemic. This year, prosecutors filed more than 2,400 a month.
Dallas County criminal trials resumed with limitations in April 2021. But Dallas judges didn’t resume trials all at once because a Texas Supreme Court order allowed courts to operate virtually until the order expired Tuesday. While courts’ in-person actions were reduced, law enforcement agencies still sent cases to the DA’s office.
Huff, the presiding judge, said judges secured state and federal funds to hire visiting judges to hear more cases.
“The judges are working to address all of the criminal caseload in the most expeditious and efficient manner possible,” Huff said.
Judges push back
Judges have pushed back against Price and Koch’s accusations that they don’t work. Huff argued there wasn’t an overwhelming backlog.
In May, the 17 felony court judges wrote a four-page letter accusing commissioners of relying on faulty data and identified more than 1,100 cases the county considered pending but that they say aren’t. Some cases weren’t active for decades, the judges said.
That same month, 11 misdemeanor and felony court judges appeared in a video called Speaking Truth to Power in which the narrator, Pastor Freddie Haynes of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, said commissioners used inaccurate data and dismissed requirements set by the state Supreme Court for overseeing cases during the pandemic.
Then, in a Sept. 8 letter, 13 of the 17 felony court judges said commissioners don’t understand state law and the criminal justice process.
Koch previously told The News that the four judges who didn’t sign the letter — Nancy Kennedy, Tina Clinton, Brandon Birmingham and Hector Garza — are among the most productive. Kennedy, Clinton and Birmingham declined to comment. Garza did not respond to a request for comment.
Data kept at the county level shows Kennedy, Birmingham and Clinton consistently dispose of the most cases. So do Jennifer Bennett and Raquel “Rocky” Jones, judges who did sign the Sept. 8 letter. Bennett declined to comment and Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
Case dispositions don’t account for other work judges do, such as researching innocence claims, which can take weeks. Nor do they take into account the length of time more complex trials take.
In March, Kennedy wrote an email to commissioners that discouraged grouping all judges at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, where the county holds criminal trials.
“It is unfair to paint all 17 District Courts in Frank Crowley with one brush,” she wrote.
Price said his stance was unaltered.
“Thank you for your performance, however the facts don’t change,” he wrote.
When commissioners’ complaints continued in public meetings, 14 of the 17 felony court judges sent another letter on Sept. 21 with solutions and a commitment to work together on easing the swollen jail population. The letter proposed seven changes to the county’s criminal justice process, including video magistration, appointing defense attorneys to represent a defendant at magistration and new software investments to reduce data errors.
Price said he still wants more from the judges. He said he believes some judges are not coming to the courthouse enough based on his own walks by the judges’ courtrooms. Judges could also be in their chambers or elsewhere in the courthouse.
Koch said in an interview he will work with judges to find solutions. He is in a tight race to keep his seat, making the tensions between the judges a focal point of the race. He proposed a pay cut for judges that ultimately did not make it into the county budget.
“The bottom line is, we definitely are heading in a better place,” Koch said. “We can look towards the long-term planning after we kind of build trust and we get all that back.”
The nationally accepted standard for resolving a case is one year, according to the National Center for State Courts. These standards have been accepted by several legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and the Conference of Court Administrators.
Texas was already behind the one-year standard before the pandemic, said Luis Soberon, policy adviser for Texas 2036, a nonprofit data and research group founded by Dallas lawyer Tom Luce. The pandemic has exacerbated that lag, he said.
In Dallas County, about 45% of cases in felony courts are older than one year by the time they’re resolved, Soberon said, and statewide, that figure is about 35 percent.
The state should turn to solutions such as improving its data collection and beefing up the judicial workforce by creating more courts, Soberon said. The last time Dallas County added felony courts was in 2005, with the creation of Criminal District Courts 6 and 7.
“The backlog is a problem in its own right. It’s not just an efficiency thing. It’s not just that the assembly line of our less-than-perfect criminal justice system isn’t working optimally,” Soberon said. “It’s that you have people languishing in jail longer, which completely upends their lives and the communities that they come from, and you have victims waiting to hear justice in their cases.”
Data reporter Arijit Sen contributed to this report.