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State Rep. George Lavender (R-Texarkana) and State Sen Kevin Eltife, (R-Tyler) are carrying legislation in the Texas Legislature designed to improve the judicial economy and efficiency of county government in Lamar County.
The two legislators are sponsoring and promoting the legislation at the request of Judge Bill Harris, who presides over Lamar County Court-at-Law.
“The proposed legislation would allow the county Court-at Law (CCL) to hear contested jury trials or bench trials in state jail, third- and second-degree felony cases,” Harris said Wednesday.
“The more serious felony cases — murders, child sex allegations, serious drug cases, etc. — would remain exclusively within the jurisdiction of the district courts.”
Presently, the CCL can hear arraignments, contested pretrial hearings and take guilty pleas in felony cases. The change would also allow Harris’ court to hear contested motions to revoke probation/adjudicate guilt.
The legislation is not designed or proposed to replace the Sixth District Courts, presided over by District Judge Eric Clifford, or the 62nd District Court presided over by District Judge Will Biard, Harris said.
“Judge Clifford and Judge Biard have the primary authority and responsibility to hear felony cases. They are excellent, fair judges. Both are fine men and work very hard administering justice and moving cases promptly through the criminal justice system,” Harris said.
“On occasion, however, for whatever reason, they are not available to hear contested felony matters. This is usually due to them handling dockets in other counties or conducting jury trials here in Lamar County,” Harris said.
On such occasions, should the need arise to conduct a jury trial in a felony care or a contested motion to revoke hearing, Harris said, his court would be available to conduct such hearings.
“This would provide prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, law enforcement and victims with a venue to promptly resolve their cases,” Harris said.
The proposed legislation has support from all Lamar County officials involved in the felony case process – from Paris Police Chief Bob Hundley and Lamar County Sheriff Scott Cass to District Attorney Gary Young and both district judges.
District Clerk Marvin Gene Patterson and County Clerk Kathy Marlowe also support the proposal, said Harris, who also has letters of support from Paris Mayor AJ Hashmi, Paris city attorney Kent McIlyar, county commissioners and constables.
“Again, this legislation is not designed to bypass or replace the district courts — only to supplement and assist all involved parties when a district judge is unavailable,” Harris said.
This serves to reduce costs to the county in that jail inmates can get their cases resolved promptly, thus keeping the jail population down and saving tax payer dollars, Harris said.
The legislation would more easily allow Judge Clifford, Judge Biard and Harris to exchange benches with each other should the need arise.
“For example, Judge Biard has a brother who is an attorney practicing in Paris. Obviously, he cannot appear in his brother’s court,” Harris said.
“With this exchange of bench legislation in place, Judge Clifford or I could step in and hear the case without the necessity of having an administrative judge in Dallas appointing a new judge. It just makes things simpler and more efficient,” Harris said.
Another significant change is how juries can be used in Lamar County.
Presently, if a jury panel is called for the district courts, the county court-at-law and county court cannot use them, and vice versa.
If a district court jury panel is called and no case goes to trial in that court the jury panel goes home – a panel is wasted, the juror’s morning is wasted and Lamar County has wasted hundreds of dollars summoning the panel.
The proposed legislation would make those panels available to other courts in the county. If a jury panel were summoned to the 6th District Court and all the civil cases settled/criminal cases pled, the county court-at-law or the county court could pick up that panel and try cases.
“All of this can be accomplished at absolutely no additional expense to Lamar County whatsoever,” Harris said.
The proposed legislation would have no effect on any other court in the State of Texas or any other court in Lamar County. The changes will be limited solely to the jurisdiction of the Court at Law in Lamar County.
By CHARLES RICHARDS