But for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Judge Jeff Monk said the months ahead would likely hit his court “like a Texas hailstorm.”
“We’re going to get busier no doubt about that,” Monk said. “All four JP courts are. But, because of the pandemic, I think it may be more a rain sprinkle before we get to full-blown storm.”
Precinct 1 JP Judge Ronny McBroom said he’s not so sure.
“It’ll be a whole different ball game for sure,” McBroom said. “All I can say is that all four of us are trying to get ready as best we can before the onslaught.”
Drizzle or typhoon, the increased business expected stems from the perfect storm of two recent developments.
The pandemic effectively shut the JP courts — as well as the district and county courts at law — down to all but the most essential services for the majority of the year.
“We, actually none of the courts, can hold jury trials right now,” McBroom said. “We stay pretty busy with those in normal times. But now, we’re going to be seriously backlogged once we’re able to resume those trials.”
When that will happen remains to be determined, but appears to be coming soon, McBroom said.
“Court administration has moved that date forward a few times already,” McBroom said. “For now, we’re supposed to start back in October and once that happens we’ll all be backlogged for a while.”
The Texas Legislature provided the other reason behind the JP’s expectations of increased activity ahead.
The legislature recently increased the JP court’s filing limits on the amount in controversy between the parties from $10,000 to $20,000.
The new limits take effect on Tuesday.
“If history is any indication, when they double our limits, we’re going to get hit with a lot more filings,” McBroom said. “In 2007, they doubled our limits from $5,000 to $10,000 and, according to court administration, that took about 25 percent of the cases from our district courts and county courts at law and brought them into our four JP courts.
“We started getting a lot more credit card cases and cases like that because we can hear those cases a lot faster and they’re not as expensive to file here as the other courts. With this new increase we’re also going to start seeing a lot more vehicle accident cases. Everyone I’ve talked to is anticipating to see at least the same amount of increase as we saw in 2007 when limits doubled.”
Fortunately, McBroom and Monk said, the legislature also changed the rules concerning the JP court’s tech funds.
A portion of court costs collected on fines contributes to those tech funds, which previously and still are used to purchase computers, cameras, monitors and other technical equipment for the courts.
“The funds consist of dollars that are there to invest in and improve the efficient operation of the courts,” Monk said.
Although the tech funds remain available for technology needs they now also serve another purpose.
“A bill passed during the last legislative session eased the restrictions on those funds so that we can also use them to hire new employees, pay their benefits and get them trained in anticipation of having a much bigger case load because of these limit increases,” McBroom said.
The Johnson County Commissioners Court last week provisionally approved tapping the JP tech funds to fund a $2,000 per year supplement for each of the JP’s clerks.
Commissioners will not officially vote on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, until next month.
Monk, Precinct 3 JP Judge Pat Jacobs and Precinct 4 JP Judge Robert Shaw requested the supplement raises for their clerks during last week’s commissioners court budget workshop. McBroom, who was unable to attend that workshop, also voiced support of the request..
All four argued that JP clerks in Johnson County have historically been underpaid.
The increase is needed, they said, in order to attract quality candidates and to retain those already here in area counties or cities that typically pay better.
“Our clerks are a little different than the clerks in the district and county courts at law,” McBroom said. “Our clerks start from the first piece of paper that comes in to the last piece that gets it on the docket whereas the clerks at the county courts at law and district courts don’t do that.
“On their side the county clerk and district clerk offices handle the paperwork from the start when someone’s charged all the way to their indictment. At that point the paperwork goes over to the district or county courts at law.
“On our end, our clerks take the filing paperwork at the window or the ticket from the trooper and handle the process all the way through. They basically do the job of the district or county clerk’s offices and the clerks in the other courts.”
McBroom asked for and received approval from commissioners to hire an additional clerk help handle the expected increase in business of his court.
“I 100 percent agree with their decision to approve that for Ronny’s court,” Monk said. “Since his office is next to [the Guinn Justice Center] he gets a lot more warrants to sign and deal with.”
The JP judges said it’s important too that the public know that money collected in the JP tech funds, not taxpayer dollars, will fund the extra clerk approved for McBroom’s court and the $2,000 supplement for all the JP clerks.
Shaw last week told commissioners that, should those funds ever run out, he would not request that the county’s general fund be used to pay the supplement.
The JPs added that, since fine payments constantly replenish the tech funds, running dry is highly unlikely.
For now the JPs continue to conduct bench trials and field pretrial motion requests.
“Every judge is a little different in how they run their court,” Monk said. “For now, we’re not having anyone in court. [Precinct 2 Constable Adam Crawford] has been a huge help to our court in that regard through helping us design operational plans to still serve everyone efficiently through phone and Zoom meetings and hearings.”
Monk said he has no current plans to request an additional clerk.
“Because, while we’re certainly going to see an increase once the new limits go into effect and once we get back to jury trials, I think it’s going to be a gradual increase.
“For one thing, we’re still in the pandemic. For another, the law firms are also going to have to adjust to these new statute changes on the limits. The increases are coming but, for now, I want to gauge what that’s going result in.”