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TX Supreme Court Chief Justice Jefferson Delivers State of Judiciary Speech

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

Texas is losing, and will continue to lose, some of its best and most experienced judges if salaries are not increased to prevent them from returning to the private sector, said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson today in the biennial State of the Judiciary speech before a joint meeting of the Texas House and Senate.

Jefferson took a moment to honor his predecessor, former Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who recently retired. Jefferson said the most appropriate honor he can bestow on Phillips is to "honor his example" by speaking passionately about how the state judiciary can best meet the needs of Texas, and on behalf of all who expect the "halls of justice to be fair and impartial."

Saying the state of the Texas judiciary "is strong," Jefferson denied some who call the judiciary the weakest branch of government. He warned, however, that the government is much like a tree, where a weak branch "often signals trouble in the roots."

The Chief Justice said the state must fund the judiciary in Texas at a level sufficient to retain its most capable judges, noting that the state is losing many from the judiciary in part because of salaries "that have not kept pace with the times." Jefferson said the judiciary then suffers from the loss of those judges' "expertise, integrity and experience."

Jefferson said Texans deserve to be able to walk into a courtroom and know that their cases will be heard by men and women of the most enormous talent and experience. He said all want access to a judiciary that includes the most capable, the most dedicated and the most knowledgeable judges.

Many judges in Texas are leaving the bench for opportunities in which they can double or triple their salaries in the private sector. While many Texans accept the call to the bench and to public service "out of devotion to the rule of law," the Chief Justice said judges in Texas should be able to willingly accept that call without having to worry about financial sacrifices.

Although those leaving the bench are being replaced by others who are "dedicated and intelligent," Jefferson said some of them are not as equipped to handle cases as effectively and efficiently as their predecessors. He said a large-scale replacement of judges leads to "uncertainty and inefficiency."

Texas' compensation for its jurists "pales in comparison" to other states, said the Chief Justice. While the state ranked fifth among all states in judicial compensation in the 1980s, he said, it has slipped to 39th today. He said an inexperienced judiciary takes a toll on the citizens of the states both in the courtroom and in the state's economy. The Chief Justice cited how business leaders report they are most likely to invest in states that offer judicial efficiency and consistency. Thus, he said, the state should ensure a strong judiciary, which he called an "economically sound decision even in days of tight budgets."

There is not a citizen in the state whose life has not been touched in some way by the judiciary, said Jefferson, and he noted both Gov. Rick Perry and members of the Texas Legislature are addressing funding of the judiciary. He urged restoration of appellate court funding and supports Perry's proposal to support the judicial system with enough funding to "maintain the quality of our judicial system" and to "attract and retain qualified judges." He also noted that legislation is being crafted in both chambers as well, to ensure that justice "remains in capable hands."

Saying Texas citizens "need more than good judges," Jefferson also outlined additional needs and goals of the judiciary, from technology to allow for a more open, accessible court system that makes the most cost-effective use of tax dollars, to the challenges of indigent defense in Texas, to access to justice.

Jefferson described his "vision for the judiciary" as a fully-funded judicial branch of the government, a strong relationship with the Legislature and the transforming of courthouses across the state into "virtual courtrooms" with accountability.

"I am confident that the ability to seek justice, in a criminal or civil case, for the rich or the poor, will be preserved as a cornerstone of our jurisprudence."