By Alfonso Charles and Megan LaVoie
The 88th Texas Legislature made many significant changes to Texas’ justice system that will have lasting impacts on judges, attorneys, and the litigants who appear in Texas courtrooms every day. The following is a brief overview of some of the new laws that will directly affect the judiciary and attorneys who practice in Texas courts. All bills are effective September 1, 2023, unless otherwise indicated.
HB 19: Business Courts
HB 19 establishes specialized trial courts for complex business cases. The new court has jurisdiction over business governance disputes in which the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million and involves certain enumerated factors. The business courts will also have jurisdiction over commercial disputes in which the amount in controversy exceeds $10 million and meets certain elements. The courts will also have jurisdiction for suits seeking declaratory or injunctive relief for the above-mentioned types of cases.
The statute clearly states that the business courts do not have the jurisdiction to hear claims arising under Chapter 74 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, or CPRC (health care liability cases), claims for monetary damages for bodily injury or death, and legal malpractice claims.
The business courts will be divided into 11 divisions created to correspond with the administrative judicial regions. There will be two judges for the First, Third, Fourth, Eighth, and 11th divisions. There will be one judge each for the Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and 10th divisions. In addition, the business courts for divisions two, five, six, seven, nine, and 10 will be abolished in 2026 unless reauthorized and funded by the Legislature.
The business court judges must be at least 35 years of age, a U.S. citizen, and a resident of a county in the division. They must be a licensed Texas attorney with at least 10 years of experience in: (1) practicing complex business litigation; (2) practicing business transaction law; (3) serving as a judge of a court with civil jurisdiction; or (4) any combination of that experience. The judges for the business courts will not be elected but appointed by the governor for two-year terms and they can be reappointed.
Appeals from cases in the business courts will go to the newly created 15th Court of Appeals. While the effective date of the bill is September 1, 2023, the courts will not be operational until September 1, 2024.
SB 1045: 15th Court of Appeals
SB 1045 creates the 15th Court of Appeals. This appellate court will be a statewide court of appeals with exclusive intermediate appellate jurisdiction for: (1) matters brought by or against the state or a board, commission, department, office or other agency, including the university system; (2) matters challenging the constitutionality of a state statute or rule and the attorney general is a party; and (3) any other matter provided by law, such as business court cases.
The 15th Court of Appeals will be composed of a chief justice and four associate justices. For the first three years, the court will just have a chief justice and two associate justices. The statute requires the court to be housed in the city of Austin, but it can transact its business in any county in the state. While the effective date for the court is September 1, 2023, the court will not be created until September 1, 2024.
HB 2384: Court Administration, Education, and Transparency
HB 2384 amends several applicable sections of the Election Code and Government Code. A judicial candidate’s ballot application will have to include the candidate’s bar number, any public sanction or censure as a lawyer or judge, a description of the nature of the candidate’s legal practice including specialization, the candidate’s professional courtroom experience for the past five years, and any final convictions of a Class A or B misdemeanor in the 10 years preceding the date the candidate would assume office. In addition, a judicial candidate for an appellate bench must include the number of appellate briefs prepared and filed in the past five years, and number of oral arguments presented in the past five years.
HB 2384 also makes changes to judicial education requirements. It orders the Supreme Court, in consultation with the Court of Criminal Appeals, to adopt rules on judicial education.
It requires a judge or justice to take 30 hours of judicial education in the first year of their first term and 16 hours for each year thereafter. In addition, the bill would allow for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to discipline a judge or justice who does not comply with the judicial education requirements.
The bill requires the Office of Court Administration, or OCA, to develop court performance measures. It further requires the OCA to collect data from courts on clearance rates, the average time for a case from filing to disposition, and the age of the court’s active pending caseload. Under the bill, the regional presiding judge is authorized to appoint a mentor to a court identified as needing additional assistance.
Finally, the bill requires the Supreme Court of Texas to adopt rules to create a specialty area of “Judicial Administration.” An attorney or judge who obtains this certification must complete 21 hours of judicial education per year to maintain the certification. Further, the bill also allows the Legislature to make appropriations for additional compensation for a judge who holds a specialty certification in judicial administration.
SB 1603: Interlocutory Appeals
SB 1603 requires the intermediate courts of appeals to specify its reasons when deciding that a permissive interlocutory appeal is not warranted. Further, the bill authorizes the Supreme Court of Texas to review an appeals court’s decision not to accept an interlocutory appeal under an abuse of discretion standard. The bill is effective for appeals filed on or after September 1, 2023.
SB 372: Unauthorized Disclosure of Judicial Opinions
SB 372 creates a new Class A misdemeanor for a person, other than a justice or judge on the court, to knowingly disclose a non-public work product or judicial opinion to a person not authorized to have the opinion or work product.
HB 3474: Omnibus Courts Bill
It has long been the tradition that the legislative chairs of the committees with jurisdiction over the judiciary author and sponsor a court omnibus bill. This session it was HB 3474. The bill creates 16 new district courts, four new county courts at law, and three new statutory probate courts with various creation dates.
In addition, juror pay is increased from $6 to $20 the first day and from $40 to $58 for each day thereafter; moreover, the state will reimburse the counties for this cost as well. The bill also provides cross credit for former elected judges who become an elected prosecutor and elected prosecutors who become an elected judge on the judicial pay tier system. In Section 8.020 of this bill, the jury exemption age is raised from 70 to 75. The same provision passed in a stand-alone bill, HB 2015.
HB 1, HB 841, HB 1182: Judicial Data Bills
Multiple bills were filed during the 88th Texas Legislature to require courts to report more specific case level data instead of the aggregate data that is currently collected at the state level by the Texas Judicial Council and the OCA. HB 841 will require the Texas Judicial Council to gather judicial statistics and promulgate rules for the collection of case level data. HB 1182 requires counties with a population of at least one million to report information by trial court, including clearance rates, cases disposed, jury panels empaneled by the court, and orders of continuance.
The Legislature also provided funding to the OCA in HB 1, the state budget, to procure a new technology system to support the collection of this information.
HB 367: Judicial Candidates
HB 367 allows the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to accept complaints, conduct investigations, and take other authorized actions with respect to candidates for judicial office in the same manner the commission is authorized to take those actions with respect to a sitting judge.
HB 1: Court Text Reminder Program
The Legislature provided funding to the OCA in HB 1 to create a Court Text Reminder Program. The program will provide a system for jurisdictions to use free of charge that will send text messages to individuals reminding them to appear for their court date.
ALFONSO CHARLES has served as judge of the 124th District Court in Gregg County since December 4, 2009. Prior to that, he served as the first judge of the County Court at Law #2 of Gregg County for almost seven years. Charles was appointed as the first presiding judge of 10th Administrative Judicial Region by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2018 and reappointed on February 22, 2022. He has served as chair of the Legislative Committee for the State Bar of Texas Judicial Section.
MEGAN LAVOIE is the administrative director of the Office of Court Administration and executive director of the Texas Judicial Council. She previously served as general counsel and communications director for state Sen. Robert Duncan and as senior director of advocacy for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. LaVoie is a graduate of Texas Tech University and St. Mary’s University School of Law.