Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Judges partner to move cases along at faster pace


Something that has never been done here before is happening in Hood County’s courts and it is expected to move cases along at a faster clip.

With the county growing at such a rapid pace, court dockets tend to be crowded but the COVID-19 pandemic created a significant backlog.

355th District Judge Bryan Bufkin and County Court-at-Law Judge Richard Hattox have agreed to a “cross-assignment” arrangement that is allowed under the Texas Government Code. The agreement, good for one year, was approved by David L. Evans, presiding judge of the Eighth Administrative Judicial Region.

Cross assignments allow judges to hear cases from each other’s courts.

As court-at-law judge, Hattox has jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases. As district judge, Bufkin has jurisdiction over felony cases. In normal circumstances, Hattox would not have authority to preside over felony cases and vice versa. Evans’ signed order eliminates that restriction.

“What that means is, if Judge Hattox has to be out of town, something comes up and he doesn’t have time to get a visiting judge, I can hear his cases,” Bufkin said. “I can hear his misdemeanors if I need to, whereas that couldn’t happen before.”

The arrangement may be particularly beneficial to Bufkin, who has been trying to have two trials per week in his courtroom. Thanks to Hattox’s willingness to help, he is now shooting for three, with Hattox handling “the lower level case” in his courtroom down the hall at the Ralph H. Walton Jr. Justice Center.

As a former district attorney for Hood County and a former longtime defense attorney, Hattox has plenty of experience with felony cases.

“We did it the first time a couple of weeks back,” Bufkin told the Hood County News last week. “And we picked three juries in a day.”

Hattox said that with the high cost involved in maintaining a jail, he feels it is “incumbent on our elected judiciary” to be as efficient as possible.

“Our promise is unprecedented, extremely practical, and maximizes our ability to provide justice in Hood County,” he stated in written remarks to the HCN.

Hattox said that the arrangement was made with the approval of County Judge Ron Massingill, who hears probate and juvenile cases in the courtroom at the courthouse on the square. Although Massingill isn’t directly involved in the case sharing, Hattox indicated that he and Bufkin felt it was appropriate for him to be involved in the agreement.

“Our goal is, by working together, to do the best job we can with what we have available, at the least cost to our taxpayers,” Hattox stated. “There is no doubt that we can and will reduce our jail population and still afford the public the assurance and safety it deserves.”

Asked whether the arrangement might help delay the need for a second district court, Bufkin said he believes that those decisions are based on population.

“But, essentially, the way I look at it is, we have one district court and we have a lot of cases and we’re all willing to work together to help each other out,” he stated. “I think it’s going to be really good for the county.”