Tarrant commissioners hit the brakes on plan to overhaul criminal courts 

dfwnewsa | April 2, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Tarrant commissioners hit the brakes on plan to overhaul criminal courts 

Melody Wilkinson, the 17th District Court and Local Administrative Court judge, spoke to county commissioners April 2, 2024. (Emily Wolf | Fort Worth Report)
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Judge Wayne Salvant would usually be in trial on a Tuesday afternoon. 

The criminal district judge told county commissioners April 2 that’s where he would have liked to remain. But the issue at hand — a proposed overhaul of the criminal court administration — was too important for him to stay sequestered in his chambers. This Tuesday marked the first time in his 30-year judicial career that the judge had come to speak in a public meeting before commissioners.

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“I think this proposal that you have before us is a bad proposal,” he said. 

At the end of a more than six-hour session, which featured testimony from nine sitting judges and multiple active defense lawyers, commissioners heeded requests to do more research — and engage more stakeholders — before moving court administration positions under county supervision. 

Instead, Tarrant County will assemble an 11-person working group tasked with finding a way to reduce the jail population and prevent fraud in the county justice system. Group members will have until July 1 to come up with a proposal of their own. The working group will include judges; staff from the district attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and budget office; a member of the criminal defense bar; and staff from the county administration.

“This is accepting the challenge laid down by the judges this morning, that they want to be a part of the solution,” County Commissioner Roy Brooks said. “This is the time.”

Commissioners also announced their intent to do away with the current criminal courts administrator position come October. That position is currently held by longtime administrator Gregory Shugart, who reports directly to the 21 district judges. Brooks said the motion approved by commissioners Tuesday does not immediately fire Shugart.

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“We expressed an intent to deauthorize and defund the position,” he said. “Intent can be shaped and formed by the work of the committee that was just authorized.” 

Shugart said ultimately, the judges expressed their discontent, and are now being provided an opportunity to talk and engage further on the issue. His position, like any other county position, is funded annually, and would’ve been a part of the budget process regardless. 

“The judges are going to figure things out, the commissioners are going to figure things out,” he said. “Hopefully they’ll come up with what’s in the best interest of the county, and if that includes my continued employment, then so be it. And if it’s not in the best interest of the county, then that happens as well.”

County Commissioner Manny Ramirez said it’s critical to recognize that the criminal justice system is a bedrock of society, and efforts to improve that system should be looked at holistically. Assembling the working group, he said, accomplishes that. 

“It’s making sure that we are best serving the citizens of Tarrant County,” he said. “They deserve the best court system in America. And I think with collaboration, that’s what we can provide for them.”

Dozens protest plan to change criminal courts administration

In multiple hours of public testimony, members of Tarrant County’s legal community brought up concerns with the initial reorganization proposal assembled by county administration. 

“Not only is this a violation of separation of powers guaranteed by our Constitution, it will lead to needless litigation and end up costing the county thousands, if not millions,” 297th District Court Judge David Hagerman said. “It will not achieve the goals that you were expecting. I do not understand why the taxpayers should be shackled with inferior services yet incur higher costs when the system breaks down — and it will break down.”

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County Judge Tim O’Hare told those gathered at the meeting that the proposal was created by staff in response to concerns about financial mismanagement within the criminal courts administration. 

“We don’t want to see people get paid for 40 hours of work for working 10 hours,” he said.

He did not offer details about the alleged mismanagement or who perpetrated it. The proposal was not, O’Hare said, intended to usurp judges’ authority. 

“The last thing we want to do is take over something we legally don’t have the authority to do,” he said. 

Michael Heiskell, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told commissioners that if there is an issue concerning financial mismanagement, the county should conduct an audit and kick out the person responsible, not change the entire system. 

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.

O’Hare invited the judges to speak to commissioners if they had any other ideas and said he was all ears. But several speakers expressed frustration that the offer of communication came so late. Judges first found out about the proposal last Wednesday, less than a week before commissioners were set to vote on it.

“If we could have had an open discussion, we might have avoided the situation we have today with tempers flared and the media here,” said Emily LaChance, a current board member and past president of the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

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Melody Wilkinson, the 17th District Court and Local Administrative Court judge, asked commissioners to take a step back and reconsider any changes at a later date. She’s been on the bench for nearly 16 years, she said, and has valued the open communication that characterized the relationship between the commissioners court and the judiciary.

“Give the judges an opportunity to visit about these issues. Let us form a committee,” she said. “Let us talk about it with stakeholders, and what it is, so that together we can do great things for our county.” 

County Commissioner Alisa Simmons had strong words for County Administrator Chandler Merritt about the process used by his staff to formulate the proposal. Merritt acknowledged they could have reached out to more stakeholders, such as judges or lawyers, before putting it on the agenda. Simmons also criticized Merritt for what she said was a practice of informing some commissioners more than others.

“You’re not going to forget to brief me. I’m not going to be the last person. I’m not gonna tolerate that bulls— anymore, Chandler,” she said. 

Only one person spoke in favor of the reorganization. Vince Giardino, who defeated incumbent Judge George Gallagher in the March primary to preside over the 396th District Court, said he’s seen firsthand the exponential growth of the courts administration in the last two decades. 

“I think the reorganization is sound government, and I hope to see it pass,” Giardino said. “This plan creates a clear chain of command for the positions involved, better protection for the employees than they have now, and it saves the county money by reducing unnecessary positions.”

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