Possibly never? Or way too late? When a person has been involved in a profession, business, public service, or elected office is it possible to fall into that infamous slot similar to fish or company overstaying a welcome? Of course it is. Do we all know someone who should have hung it up sooner? You betcha.
Avoiding that possibility was, of course, one of the reasons that I decided to retire from the active bench at the end of this term. The other reason for (semi) retirement at this point is that had I served another term I would have been almost 73 at then end of that one and that is getting a little late to start into something else. What sort of something else? Stay tuned …. And then there are the hobbies … more time needed there and with family.
Let’s be clear: I still enjoy my work and continue to be grateful for this opportunity at public service. I cannot state my reasons and rationale any more clearly than in my recent press conference/announcement so that will be repeated here.
State of the 33rd and 424th Judicial Districts
We cannot talk about the current state of the districts without first recalling some history. When I took the bench in January 1997 the 33rd Judicial District (there was no 424th yet) also included Mason County for a total of five counties. I was blessed with several resources: Judge Clayton Evans was helpful when questions arose; we had the Intermediate Sanction Facility which he was instrumental in forming; CASA (CASA of the Highland Lakes) (Court Appointed Special Advocates) was up and running; and we had the Hill Country Childrens’ Advocacy Center (which Judge Evans’ wife Yvonne was instrumental in forming). This constellation of resources to the judicial system was, in 1997, quite remarkable for a rural 5-county judicial district.
And there were direct judicial resources as well. Judge Evans assisted as a “visiting judge” as did Hon. D.V. Hammond (who had held the 33rd bench) and Hon. Charles Hearn (who had a vacation home in the area). Since the district had too much activity for one judge to handle, these “VJs” were indispensable.
Changes have occurred over the years in how the Court’s business was conducted as cases grew more complex on both the criminal and civil dockets. The volume of case filings has varied at times but with an overall steady increase in volume, and the overall level of activity, i.e. the amount of court time, has grown substantially. In the 2003 legislative year the Legislature cut the visiting judge budget by about 70%, effectively crippling that program. This was unfortunate as, at that time, the entire budget for the state judiciary was 3/10ths of ONE percent of the entire state budget. This led to the creation in 2005 of the 424th Judicial District also serving the same four counties (Mason County having been moved to another district in the late 90’s), and Hon. Dan Mills was appointed to that bench in October 2005. Having the “sister district” replaced the need for use of visiting judges except in extraordinary situations.
Some of the significant changes made over the years have included:
- 1997, implemented a requirement that all probationers who do not have either a diploma or GED must work toward a GED. Literacy Highland Lakes is given much credit for furnishing the adult education and GED programs for all of these years.
- 1997, the 33rd became the second judicial district in Texas to implement the CourtCall system for efficiently conducting telephonic hearings. Only the 133rd District Court (Hon. Lamar McCorkle, Houston) was using the system at that time. CourtCall has saved attorneys and their clients countless hours and dollars by avoiding unnecessary travel.
- June 1997, as one of the early courts in Texas to do so, implemented the “Kids First” seminar for divorcing parents, a 4-hour seminar designed to focus parents on effective communications regarding their children during the trying times of a divorce, and afterward.
- 1997, appointed to the Texas Supreme Court Task Force on Foster Care, Court Improvement Project (extensive description here), serving on that Task Force until 2007 when it was superseded by establishment by the Supreme Court of the Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families. I continue to serve on the Technology Committee of the Commission.
- 1997, supported and assisted in legislation creating the Burnet County Court-at-law.
- 1998, one of the first courts to order mediation in CPS cases, which is now a routine practice in most Texas courts.
- The first court in Texas to rule that a child witness to a sexual assault could testify by remote video using a procedure specified for certain child victims. (Marx v. Texas, No. 98—9183. Decided November 29, 1999 – U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, implicitly approving the decision.)
- Ruled and affirmed on two significant cases of first impression in Texas, one involving ownership of the “Horseshoebay.com” domain name (Horseshoe Bay Resort Sales Co. v. Lake Lyndon B. Johnson Imp. Corp., 53 S.W.3d 799 (Tex.App. —Austin 2001)) and another declaring granite to be a “mineral” for purposes of Texas mineral law (Wilderness Cove, Ltd. v. Cold Spring Granite Co., 62 S.W.3d 844 (Tex.App. —Austin 2001)).
- Conducted a guilty plea in the Burnet High School auditorium involving an intoxication manslaughter case with several highly emotional victim impact statements, producing a significant impact on the students and parents present regarding drunk driving.
- Created (personally) the first website for the 33rd (now including the 424th) district court which contains forms, procedures and information for attorneys and the public, at no cost to taxpayers.
- Encouraged and implemented extensive use of email by court staff and attorneys, resulting in substantial savings of time and savings of public funds by reduction of telephone, postage, paper and related supplies.
- Collaborated with Bell County to obtain a Child Protection Court allowing an associate judge to specialize in hearing all cases involving children in State care in the “CPS” system.
- Developed and implemented a radically different procedure for moving criminal cases, working closely with both the District Attorney’s office and the criminal defense bar, resulting in fewer pretrial hearings being necessary.
- Encouraged “best practices” by the State and Defense Bar in the plea-bargain process and trial readiness.
- Personally wrote the Indigent Defense Plan for the district and county courts of the four counties and enhanced the public defender’s office to provide what is one of the few contract “PD” offices, and arguably the highest quality such office in the State.
- Created an analysis of Juvenile processing law and procedures and implemented a “best practices” protocol for the four counties.
- 2004, created the first multi-county Drug Court in Texas using grant funds. The Drug Court in Burnet County has been well over 50% effective in graduating drug-free citizens, with a near-zero recidivism rate among those who successfully completed the rigid program.
- 2005, wrote the legislation for creation of the 424th District Court.
- Worked closely with the Burnet County District Clerk to implement eFiling of cases and the iJury qualification processes, each of which have resulted in efficiencies and savings to taxpayers.
- Fostered creation of a mentoring program for children in Juvenile Court.
- Encouraged development of the Parent Project (parent education course) and implemented required attendance by parents of children in Juvenile Court.
- Supervised, as the referring court, associate judges for child protection and for the U.S. Title IV-D “child support” courts.
- Developed modern office procedures including use of email, maintenance of and reference to online databases, advanced use of computer software including WordPerfect, Word, and Excel.
The District Court is now housed in a modern courthouse annex with two courtrooms that stay busy much of the time with district court, CPS or Child Support court, Justice of the Peace trials, and occasionally the Burnet County Court-at-law. We have a professional staff of two coordinators plus an assistant to them, and two fantastic court reporters.
What does the future hold for the judicial districts? Some of the things we need to be discussing include:
- Growth will continue, especially in Burnet and Blanco Counties and court infrastructure must keep pace.
- Caseloads will steadily increase and court resources will have to grow, especially in Burnet County.
- Burnet County needs to become a judicial district by itself in order for judges and court staff to more efficiently manage caseloads.
- A county auditor should be added to Blanco County this coming fiscal year.
- Llano County needs to move Commissioners Court to another location to accommodate the inevitable increase in caseloads and use of the courtroom. Plans should be laid for a separate county courtroom.
- The counties of the district should supplement the salary of the district judge by at least $5-10,000 annually.
- The counties must increase funding for prosecution staff – including an increase in attorney compensation, adding positions for certified paralegals, and increasing investigative staff.
- Certified interpreters are needed in the counties.
- Security needs to be enhanced in all of the counties so that in the courthouses both the public and county employees are safe – not just in the courtrooms, but throughout.
Where are we now?
It has been the goal of this judge to create a “user-friendly” environment for lawyers and litigants while still maintaining the decorum and dignity of the proceedings. The adversary system is essential in preserving our rule of law but that does not necessitate hostility either among lawyers or between the bar and the bench. My view has always been that I was not “The” Court, but merely the caretaker thereof and that such was and is a great privilege. It is my hope that in my caretaking role I have helped to define this court, and not to be defined by it.
I have never been afraid to make the hard, and sometimes politically unpopular decisions. The judiciary must remain independent not only from the other two branches of government, but from popular or political pressure as well. A judge must at all times be intellectually honest and strive simply to be fair and impartial, basing decisions on the correct law applied properly to the facts presented in court. I am satisfied that so far in these 14 years I have never made a decision otherwise.
This is wonderful work – some would say it is God’s work, and I agree. I don’t know many ways you can serve your community as deeply, within your chosen profession, and get paid for it! I go to work every day excited and challenged about what the day will hold. For those of you who read my blog you know that my motto is “leave the world better than you found it … really” and that is how I approach each day. I feel as if I could do this forever.
But I shouldn’t. It is best to stop before I become a crotchety old judge like some of those we all know. I hope I have been known – in addition to being fair and impartial – as having a good judicial temperament and I don’t want to risk spoiling that reputation, if indeed that is the case.
Therefore, I will not seek re-election in 2012.
With great fondness for the people and officials of the several counties of the district,
/s/ Guilford L. Jones, III, Judge, 33rd Judicial District Court of Texas
Newspaper article from The River Cities Tribune, 20 Feb 2011.