Monday, December 13, 2010

CCA retirement opens possiblity for budget savings, new judge

Faced with potential budget cuts to the courts, a remarkable suggestion was floated in an article by Peggy Fikac of the San Antonio Express News to reduce the number of judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Her story opens:
Here’s one way to cut the budget at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: Trim it by one judge, at least temporarily.

The state's highest criminal court made the suggestion earlier this year during the first round of cuts to help address a looming, massive state budget shortfall.

Judge Charles Holcomb is retiring at the end of this year because of age restrictions — he's 77 - and GOP Gov. Rick Perry would appoint his replacement to serve until the next general election.

But the nine-member appellate court, faced with a preliminary cost-savings target of $487,376 for the current fiscal period, said one option would be to ask Perry to leave the seat vacant until the end of the fiscal year next Aug. 31.

The court said this would save eight months of salary for Holcomb and a couple of staff members, for a total of $191,328. It also would leave the court with eight members, causing delays as the remaining judges took up the slack and setting up the possibility of a tie on some cases.

State leaders didn't go for the idea earlier this year, instead allowing the court to reduce its target savings. Now that leaders are directing another round of cuts, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller said she doesn't know whether the court might again recommend the idea. "It's really up to the governor," she said, adding that she's not sure if it's an option since leaders exempted that item previously.

Whether or not it's resurrected, the proposal shows the lengths some agencies will consider to deal with the state's money problem.

While the savings would be a benefit, Keller said, "The downside would be the possibility of having a tie vote and having to hold a case until a new judge was appointed." But she said the judges work well together and would seek to resolve any ties. "The biggest issue for us would be taking on the work of another judge - eight of us doing the work of nine."
Ideologically, Holcomb resides on the moderate wing of the court so his departure will no doubt alter the court's dynamics, whether they leave the seat empty or if the Governor appoints a replacement. Leaving the spot open for a while likely wouldn't overwhelm the court's workload: Last year the CCA issued fewer opinions than in any term since 1994, so one less judge probably won't stop them from covering all their bases.

The story also raises the question: Who might Rick Perry appoint to replace Judge Holcomb, whether it happens immediately or later to realize budget savings? The Court of Criminal Appeals' reputation has suffered greatly over the last decade, becoming a "national laughingstock" under Judge Sharon Keller's leadership. The Governor would do well to appoint a replacement for Holcomb who's well-respected on both sides of the bar, and with enough gravitas to stand up to politicization of the court and judicial activism by its pro-prosecution wing.


Anonymous said...

What a really stupid idea. Try looking outside constitutionally established institutions.

Anonymous said...

John Bradley!

Anonymous said...

Walter Prentice; he has recovered from his brush in the Valley; is now well respected; is a Military Judge and would be a short termer. He is connected to Reps King and Berman as well as others on the other end and actually ghost writs many breifs for both prosecutors and defense lawyers. Given that he was once Chief Staff Counsel he would asctually be a great short term choice.

Anonymous said...

I agree Prentice would be a great choice. He has forgotten more law than most of us have ever learned

Anonymous said...

Is anyone concerned that failure to fill this slot might lead, yet again, to a move to eliminate the CCA altogether?