TYLER, Texas (KETK) – After a push from Rep. Matt Schaefer and State Sen. Bryan Hughes, Texas passed an omnibus bill that included a provision of a new district court to be formed in Smith County.
The newly-created court will be known as the 475th District and will be the fifth such district court in the county. The other four are the 7th, 114th, 241st, and 321st.
The first three courts deal with felony cases while the last handles family law matters. Schaefer, Hughes, and Smith County District Attorney Jacob Putman all testified in Austin to the Legislature that a fourth court to handle felony cases was badly needed.
During the pandemic, the court system grounded to a halt and there is an intense backlog of cases from the past year and hundreds of more inmates are being held in the Smith County Jail than normal.
Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran also said during a commissioner’s court meeting on Tuesday that this would be the first new district court in 40 years for the county. Since the last one was formed, the population has exploded from just over 100,000 to more than an estimated 230,000.
The bill signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott last week states that the court would open on January 1, 2023. Per Texas law, Gov. Abbott would appoint a judge to fill the role until the next general election. Under that statute, the first election for the 475th District Court would technically be November 2024.
However, due to the huge Republican advantage in Smith County, it would likely be decided in the March primaries or a run-off later that summer if one candidate does not receive 50% of the vote.
Currently, Republicans hold all county-wide elected positions and a Democratic presidential candidate has not won the county since Harry Truman in 1948.
There is also the question of where the courthouse in downtown Tyler would place the new courtroom. The building was not built to hold that many district courtrooms when it was built 70 years ago.
The 241st District courtroom was created roughly four decades ago out of what used to be the law library.
When the new decade started, county commissioners started putting together plans for a new courthouse to be built. However, those plans were hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.
They have settled on the design for the new building, but have held off putting a bond election until at least 2022. Moran said that the court did not want to burden the taxpayers at a time of economic struggle that the pandemic created.
The earliest that a new courthouse could even be opened at the current plan would be late 2027 or early 2028.
Moran addressed the court saying that the biggest concern for nearly everyone involved was updating security features that the current courthouse lacks.
For instance, there are only two small bathrooms on the main floor. This means that everyone from family members, defendants, jurors, etc. has to use the same facilities.
There is also a noticeable lack of safe entry into the building for staff members and judges away from the general public.
New features for the building would include a secure parking garage and elevators for workers as well as private restrooms for jury members. There will also be protected areas that keep incoming inmates away from the public when they enter the courtroom.
The presentation also showed that the courtroom will plan for future population growth, unlike the current building decades ago. The new facility can hold up to 12 courtrooms while the current courthouse has eight, and will soon be nine.
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