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Some fear Tarrant criminal courts could see ‘chilling effect’ under proposed reorganization

The Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center, which hosts multiple criminal courts, is located at 401 West Belknap St.
Cristian ArguetaSoto
Fort Worth Report
The Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center, which hosts multiple criminal courts, is located at 401 West Belknap St.

The criminal courts administration in Tarrant County could undergo a far-reaching reorganization in July, if county commissioners approve a proposal to bring many positions under county administrative control. Some judges fear the change could take away judicial independence.

“The judicial branch is the third branch of government,” Judge George Gallagher, who oversees the 396th Criminal District Court, said. “And this is, in my opinion, a potential takeover (with a) chilling effect upon the ability of that branch of government to do its job.”

The criminal courts administration — which includes positions like case managers, magistrate support officers and bailiffs — is responsible for much of the behind-the-scenes work that keeps the county’s 21 criminal courts operating at full tilt. Right now, the administration is headed by Gregory Shugart, who has been in the position for nearly 12 years. Shugart reports directly to the 21 criminal district judges in Tarrant County.

“Judicial time is valuable,” Shugart said. “They need to be focused on the cases in front of them. Computer systems, ordering of papers, policies and procedures, personnel issues, all the minutiae that you have to do to run an organization, is what I do for them.”

Under the reorganization proposal, which is listed on the April 2 commissioners court agenda, Shugart’s job would be eliminated. The county would instead hire a director for a newly created Department of Courts Administration, which would serve criminal, civil, probate, family and juvenile judges, and courts. Most of the existing 63 positions in the criminal courts administration would move to the new department. They would report to county administration, not the district judges.

The county estimates a net savings of $173,805. Neither the county judge nor the county administrator responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.

One of the issues cited in the reorganization proposal is a rapid increase in authorized positions within the criminal courts administration. Before October 2019, the county’s pretrial department had 17 positions; when the county switched to a central magistration system, those positions were absorbed by judges. Now the criminal courts administration has 28 authorized positions for its pretrial program, a 64% increase from the 2019 numbers.

Shugart said that the staff increase allowed the program to offer 24/7 operations, instead of the traditional weekday hours offered by the previous pretrial program, and a much larger scope of services.

“Our magistrate support officers do so much more than what the pretrial division did,” he said. “They prepare all documentation, run the public safety assessment, make sure everything that the judge needs is prepared and put into a format for the judge to review to make bond decisions.”

County Commissioner Manny Ramirez said the reorganization would provide greater transparency and accountability within the judicial system by placing positions under county control. He said there are too many layers of administrative bureaucracy, and that has impacted communication.

“I think the effort here really is just to clean up the system and ensure that courts administration can function as efficiently and as effectively as possible,” he said.

Shugart said he didn’t find out about the proposal until Wednesday, when County Commissioner Alisa Simmons brought it up during a judges’ meeting. He wasn’t the only one taken by surprise; Gallagher said he also didn’t find out about the reorganization proposal until this week.

“I was flabbergasted, No. 1, because there’s been no communication by county administration, no professional courtesy by county administration, to the elected officials,” he said. “And in 25 years of being a judge, I’ve never seen the takeover of one county department, totally, within a period of a week.”

Simmons said she first heard about the reorganization proposal directly after the March 19 commissioners court meeting. To her, that indicates that the project has been in development for months. When she found out about the proposal, Simmons said she directed county administration to take a step back and research best practices from other urban counties in Texas and the U.S.

“This process reflects a disturbing lack of both transparency and professionalism from our new county administrator,” Simmons wrote in a statement. “I should have been notified more than two weeks in advance of voting — on a proposed move this significant.”

The board of the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association also issued a statement Friday afternoon in response to the proposal, in which board members expressed concern that the reorganization plan was constructed in secret, with little to no input from judges, the defense bar or other constituents.

“Open and fair government is not rushed nor done in secret,” board members wrote in the statement. “For decades Tarrant County has been known nationwide as a conservative governmental body that took time to work through and develop the best plan possible for the citizens it serves. By not inviting those directly impacted by this dramatic change in, how the courts in Tarrant County will operate leaves many to wonder why the rush?”

The board also echoed Gallagher’s concerns about judicial independence. Separation of powers has served the country well since the founding fathers, they wrote.

“Moving control of the judicial branch to a singular department within the executive branch is not in keeping with the spirit of how our country and state were founded,” board members continued.

Gallagher is also worried that the reorganization effort could expose judicial work product assembled by employees. That product, which is protected under Texas law, includes material prepared, mental impressions developed, or communications made “in anticipation of litigation” or for trial.

“Now they’re putting (employees) to work in a department where they’re controlled by somebody else,” he said. “And I think that is a huge constitutional problem.”

Gallagher and Simmons both said they believe it comes down to a desire for control. The criminal courts administrator is beholden to the judges, not the county commissioners, and Gallagher said changes in county administration have made that a pressure point.

Ramirez, however, said that putting more control in the hands of county administration would have a net positive effect.

“My No. 1 goal is public safety,” Ramirez said. “If county administration is proposing organizational changes that will enhance the administration of the justice system and allow us to operate more effectively, then I owe it to the Tarrant County taxpayers to take a look at that proposal.”

Simmons acknowledged that there are issues within the judicial system she’d like to see improved, such as increased efficiency in court settings and timely access to justice. But she’s been encouraged by the criminal court administration’s receptiveness to addressing these issues, and said the reorganization would only introduce chaos.

“It is not the role of the commissioners court to handle the affairs of our judiciary, especially the affairs of our criminal justice system that deals with literal life and death decisions of our citizens every day,” she said.

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She grew up in Round Rock, Texas, and graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a degree in investigative journalism. Reach her at for more stories by Emily Wolf click here.