Tarrant County misdemeanor and felony courts have an average of 1,600 backlogged cases as a result of court closures and delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to county staff. 

The county is responsible for the operation of 21 courts across the region, but their doors were closed for months on end as COVID-19 swept through the country. As a result, cases began to pile up. 

“People’s cases weren’t being settled and held and held,” Helen Geise, director of budget and risk management for Tarrant County, said. “And finally we opened back up, and we are hoping that the courts will go full steam ahead.”

When courts shut down, defendants’ constitutional rights to a fair trial didn’t disappear. While around 98% of cases end in a plea bargain, the 2% that want a trial still need access to that right, said Greg Shugart, Tarrant County criminal court administrator. 

“We’re in the process of examining how we’re handling our caseload case management, because judicial time is valuable,” he said. “And so we want to make sure that the right cases go to trial and get in front of judges efficiently.”

The county is set to approve a massive increase in funding for visiting judges in fiscal year 2023 to help chip away at the backlog and get trials moving. In 2022, commissioners approved $184,347 to pay visiting judges. This year, county staff are recommending almost $1.2 million for the same purpose. 

If successful in cutting down the backlog, the budgeted increase will likely be a one-time decision, Geise said. 

“If we see that the backlog cases are diminishing –and hopefully they will – you will not see that funding reoccurring for visiting judges,” she said. 

In order for the backlog of felony cases to be resolved, the clearance rate for felony cases would have to be 105%-110% for 18 months, Shugart said. Right now, the courts are at a 99% clearance rate, which Shugart said is equivalent to treading water. 

“You can see the misdemeanor court is at 111% or 112%,” he said. “That means that we’re actually getting rid of more cases than are coming in, so we’re actually currently gaining on the backlog (for misdemeanors).”

While the million is being appropriated toward visiting judges, that doesn’t mean all of it will be spent, Geise said. Instead, the money is being set aside to ensure the county has enough to cover any costs associated with the increased use of visiting judges. When a court requests a visiting judge, the money will be transferred directly to the court in question.

“That’s just a holding place until we know where the case is actually happening, and we’ll move it over to that court,” Geise said. “And that’s why you’ll never see a year-to-date expenses.”

The budget also shows a related increase in counsel fees, or the cost for providing a court- appointed counsel to a defendant. In all, counsel fees have increased a little over $7 million compared to last year. 

“I can’t make a comment whether the counsel fees … would also decrease (next year) because the cost of everything is going up and defense attorneys rates also go up,” Geise said. 

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Emily WolfGovernment Accountability Reporter

Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Round Rock, Texas, she spent several years at the University of Missouri-Columbia majoring in investigative...