Editor’s Note: This video footage aired on March 2, 2021.
AUSTIN, Texas (KETK) – Texas State Rep. Matt Schaefer has filed a bill to create a fifth district court in Smith County to help reduce the backlog of criminal cases.
Schaefer (R-Tyler) filed the bill last week, according to online records with the Texas Legislature. The court would be known as the 475th District Court and its judge would need to be elected.
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.
One of the chief reasons that the county has been looking to build a new courthouse for the past several years has been the backlog of criminal cases that have overwhelmed judges and their staff.
The county of more than 230,000 people simply cannot run efficiently with only three felony courtrooms. The last time a district court was added in the county was in 1977 when the population was less than half that number.
Smith County commissioners looked at a proposal for a new courthouse earlier this month and were thoroughly impressed, but decided not to put it on the ballot for November elections due to the financial burden of many citizens from the pandemic.
An architectural group presented a detailed plan for a seven-story building that spanned more than 230,000 square feet. If a parking garage is added, the total cost of the plan would total roughly $140 million.
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 form 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. However when it was built, it held only half of that. Many of the current courtrooms were made in makeshift areas, such as the 241st District Court under Judge Jack Skeen which used to hold the law library.