SMITH COUNTY, Texas (KETK) – Smith County will get a new district court to help reduce the backlog of criminal cases.

House Bill 3774 was signed by Gov. Abbott on June 18. The bill will create a fifth district court in Smith County.

There are currently four district courts in Smith County: the 7th, 114th, 241st, and 321st. The first three deal with felony cases while the last handles family court battles. The new court would be the 475th district court.

According to Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran, the county was already falling behind before the pandemic with 400 people sitting in jail waiting for their felony cases. After COVID-19 slowed the cases even more, that number is now around 700.

Moran said the new court was part of a cooperation with Rep. Matt Schaefer and Sen. Bryan Hughes.

“Courts exist to ensure justice for our citizens,” Schaefer said. “When the courts get overworked and cases stack up, our citizens expect their elected representatives to act. I am thankful that my request for a new district court for Smith County is close to becoming a reality. Now is the time for a new court, and I am grateful that the Commissioners Court supports this effort.”

Schaefer authored the bill in the House after coordinating with local officials about the need last year.

Judge Moran and Smith County District Attorney Jacob Putman testified in favor of HB 3774 in front of the House of Representatives during the legislative session.

“This new district court is a step in the right direction in addressing the needs of Smith County’s growing population,” Putman said. “It will enable our prosecutors, judges and public servants to move cases more efficiently and effectively. We are grateful to Rep. Matt Schaefer and Sen. Bryan Hughes’ effort to make this court happen.”

The expansion won’t happen until Jan. 21, 2023. In the meantime, Moran said they’re going to try and find a creative way to address the current backlog of cases.

Moran said they’ll appoint a new judge for 2023 before they get a chance to hold an election later.

According to Moran, Smith County has not had a new district court since 1977, when the county’s population was about 100,000. Currently, the population is about 230,000 people.

“It’s time for us to have a new district court here,” Moran said.

Under existing state law, Abbott has the power to appoint the new district judge initially, but that appointment would only be effective until the next succeeding general election in November 2024, at which point the citizens of Smith County will elect a succeeding judge for the position.