Regular readers may recall that, in early 2012, then-Gov. Perry's Criminal Justice Division deployed new rules governing the timeline by which counties must submit data on court cases, penalizing them for noncompliance by taking away federal grants if they refused to submit data in a timely manner. (See Grits coverage here, here, here, and here, and coverage of the state auditor's report that inspired the rule.).
In Nueces County, they've run up against a unique problem: The DA refuses to dismiss low-level misdemeanor cases which aren't being prosecuted and thus the county can't meet the normally generous reporting deadline for finalizing cases. At the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Krista Torralva reported that, "Nueces County was denied $142,000 in grants and is at risk of losing about $1 million in all." Now, "The five county courts at law and eight state district courts have until Oct. 1 to resolve more than 400 cases from between 2010-2014. The Governor's Criminal Justice Division granted Nueces County a 60-day extension from Aug. 1 to get in compliance."
Skurka appeared uninterested in helping the county solve its grant problem, though grants include "funding for GPS monitors with victim notification in domestic violence cases." Already, "More than $142,000 in grants were denied to fund drug court for juvenile offenders, drunken driving court for adult offenders, security cameras for the courthouse and electronics systems." State district judges at the meeting, who normally oversee felony cases
offered to take misdemeanor cases from the five county courts at law to quickly relieve them. But District Attorney Mark Skurka said that presented an issue because the misdemeanor prosecutors can't be in two places at once.Instead, the DA's office wants convictions out of these old cases:
[Judge David] Stith suggested the judges hire temporary special prosecutors to handle cases. But it would be nearly impossible for the two-person witness office to get all the witnesses together, Skurka said.
[Judge Sandra] Watts asked Skurka for his suggestion. He didn't offer one.
Assistant District Attorney Lorena Whitney suggested reaching plea agreements in cases of marijuana possession, driving with a suspended license and criminal trespass, which make up a large chunk of the pending misdemeanors.It should be mentioned that Nueces is nearly alone in still struggling with this problem. Most other counties are able to comply with the rules and nobody but Mr. Skurka is balking over old pot and suspended license cases. The idea that Skurka's recalcitrance stems from a commitment to "justice" beggars belief. How does it serve justice to keep 400 people in limbo for years without a speedy trial? Or to divert judges from felony courts that hear rape, robbery and murder cases to handle old misdemeanor leftovers? Dig deeper into these issues and Skurka loses hands down on the "justice" question.
Stith suggested dismissing cases that prosecutors weren't prepared to take to trial.
"See, that's the problem Judge," Skurka said. "You're trying to get these cases dismissed and that's not justice."
Hasette asked if the cases were worth prosecuting, especially in years-old cases in which witnesses haven't been located. Skurka suggested the witnesses weren't found because the judges hadn't set the cases for trial.
"Well we're about ready to set them," Watts said.
Reading between the lines, this comes off as a final "FU" from an embittered pol aimed at his peers and the electorate, neither of whom appear particularly sorry to see him go. It's sort of a passive-aggressive version of Davy Crockett's declaration to the voters in Tennessee after losing his Congressional seat: "You can all go to hell and I shall go to Texas." By contrast, we likely won't see I don't care if you lose your stupid grant money emblazoned on t-shirts and swag. Whoever replaces Skurka will no doubt put this ignoble, spite-based behavior to rest and seek to work with the courts more productively. For the next few months, though, Nueces judges and court staff are left with a partner on these questions with no incentive to cooperate and who doesn't seem to care about them, their opinions, nor stewardship of county faith and funds. Ain't democracy grand?