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Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht urged state lawmakers on Wednesday to increase the salaries of judicial officers and create a new court system to handle disputes between businesses.
The comments came in his biennial State of the Judiciary speech, during which he also warned against the growing politicization of the third branch of government. He cited the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, in which the winner was an avowed liberal, and comments by former President Donald Trump and a Democratic U.S. senator characterizing judicial decisions as biased.
“I am concerned that the political divisions between us threaten judicial independence, which is essential to the rule of law,” Hecht, a Republican, said in a Texas Supreme Court courtroom in Austin. “Left and right, and leaders in both the executive and legislative branches, are unanimous: Judges are not independent and should not be; they must take a side – my side.
He urged judges not to make biased decisions, saying pressure to conform to politics “destroys the rule of law, which is essential to justice for all.”
Both the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, are all Republicans.
Hecht also criticized Texas lawmakers for regularly failing to provide raises for judges, a longtime issue for the justice, who served nearly 25 years on the Supreme Court. He said judges’ base pay has not been raised since 2013, putting it second to last in the country. Currently, the base salary for Texas district judges is $140,000, according to budget documents.
“We cannot expect to hire top-notch attorneys for judges when they not only have to take a significant pay cut to leave practice, but also face no reasonable hope of credible promotions,” he said.
The Judicial Compensation Commission, he said, is recommending an 11 percent raise for district judges for each year in the biennial budget. The House proposed a 5 percent raise for district judges in its latest budget proposal, but it is not included in the Senate budget proposal.
The chief justice also backed controversial measures to support a specialist court system specifically for businesses. Like all civil cases, business disputes are now heard by district judges selected by the county and appealed through the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts before reaching the supreme court.
“Business cases are often more complex than other civil cases and handling them alongside simpler cases leads to serious inefficiencies,” he said. “The costs and increased uncertainty of such litigation have led businesses to turn to arbitration and other dispute resolution alternatives with the resulting lack of transparency and development of precedent.”
He noted that other countries have established specialized business courts. However, the measures, Senate Bill 27 and House Bill 19, have been criticized as an expensive way to give special treatment to businesses and create a judiciary under the governor’s thumb.
The measures, as filed, would create a business court district overseen by seven judges appointed by the governor.
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