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Opinion

Dallas County must hold judges accountable for case logjam

Threat to dock pay is too soon but it’s getting attention

A couple of Dallas County commissioners are turning up the heat on the local felony court judiciary, threatening to dock judges’ pay if they don’t work harder to reduce growing case backlogs.

While we can’t yet endorse a pay cut, we applaud Commissioner John Wiley Price and his Republican colleague, J.J. Koch, for the bipartisan pressure they’re putting on criminal court judges. They say they’re considering proposing a reduction or even withholding of the county’s $18,000 supplement to the judges’ state salaries until they make a bigger dent in the number of pending cases — which is nearly 21,000 cases.

The commissioners’ concerns come at the same time as we’ve raised some of our own.

One misdemeanor judge who oversees the county’s special DWI court is herself serving a probation sentence for allegedly driving drunk. A felony court judge is under investigation by the Texas Rangers. And a Dallas lawyer who will assume a misdemeanor court bench in January owes the Texas Ethics Commission more than $40,000 in delinquent fines for not turning in timely campaign finance reports.

As we’ve noted before, this is particularly condemnable conduct among those sworn and duty bound to uphold the law. And it’s even worse amid allegations of lax work habits.

The felony judges have pushed back against the accusations, saying they’re working hard to dispose of cases as quickly as possible. And some clearly run busier dockets than others. Still, state data on overall court activity backs up concerns that, on the whole, the felony courts are falling more and more behind.

From January to June this year, the number of active and pending felony cases in Dallas County rose while those in other large urban areas in the state fell, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration. Price has said he fears a federal “audit nightmare” of $3 million in COVID-19 relief dollars given to the county if the judges can’t prove they’ve used the funds to ease the logjam of cases.

Price is right that a growing backlog of criminal cases is a significant problem. It puts pressure on the jail system as inmates await hearings and trials. And the longer cases are pending, the more stale the evidence gets.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who often acts as peacekeeper among county officials, told us he invited the judges to a hamburger dinner party in late May to better understand their side of the story. His takeaway: Some judges “are working extremely hard and some less so.” Nonetheless, the best way to improve overall performance is “to work together.” And he would not support a cut in their pay, he said.

“People rarely perform to their highest capability when they are threatened and disrespected,” Jenkins told us.

Maybe. But the reality in Dallas County is that some elected criminal judges are enjoying the stability of their positions after being swept into office on popular party tickets, but face little public scrutiny of their actions.

We applaud commissioners Price and Koch for calling attention to the case backlog issue, even if their most recent threat of hitting judges in their wallets is heavy-handed and premature.

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