AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – In an address to state lawmakers, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht asked for more judicial and courthouse security, improved access to the justice system, cheaper legal fees, elimination of so-called debtors’ prisons and bail reform.
Justice Hecht began last week’s State of the Judiciary address by telling the 85th Texas Legislature the story of the November 2015 attack on Travis County District Court Judge Julie Kocurek, who was shot and severely injured in her driveway as part of an alleged plot to kill her.
Travis County officials were supposedly aware of a threat but did not inform Kocurek. Though she recovered from her injuries and later returned to the courtroom, she was awarded a $500,000 settlement because of the county’s improper handling of the threat. The three suspected perpetrators of the attack are in jail and awaiting trial.
Hecht said the attack on Kocurek shows there is a need for statewide improvements in judicial security.
“Judges are not the only ones at risk; courthouses must be safe for staff, parties, lawyers, and jurors. Every threat must be taken seriously,” he said.
As a result, the Texas Judicial Council, which is the policy-making body for the state judiciary, proposed a new position, director of state judicial security, to oversee security plans and initiatives across the state.
The council plans to change existing laws to shield judges’ personal information from public access. Judges and their spouses would be allowed to delist addresses and phone numbers from public records. The council also asked for increased funding for courthouse security and for the personal security of judges who have been threatened or attacked.
The judicial council’s security recommendations are contained in Texas Senate Bill 42, which was introduced on Jan. 24. The council proposes that the bill be called the Judge Julie Kocurek Judicial and Courthouse Security Act of 2017.
Hecht also wants judicial salaries to be increased by the legislature.
“We continue to fall further behind federal judges and judges in other states—27th overall, and last among the six largest states,” he said. He suggested using a mathematical formula in which judicial salaries would be based on salaries of other judges, officials and lawyers, as well as cost of living increases.
Lack of access to the justice system is another pressing issue, according to Hecht.
“Justice only for those who can afford it is neither justice for all nor justice at all,” he said. “The rule of law, so revered in this country, has no integrity if its promises and protections extend only to the well-to-do.”
He wants lawmakers to continue funding basic legal services for military veterans, as well as sexual assault victims. He praised the role of legal aid providers and attorneys who provide pro bono services.
“Every dollar for legal aid thus provides many dollars in legal services. Every year, Texas lawyers donate millions of dollars and millions of hours. A million hours, by the way, is 500 work-years. Legal aid helps the poor be productive and adds to the economy’s bottom line,” he said.