Non-Lawyers Serving as Judges in Texas County Courts

December 3rd, 2011

It seems they can handle some small civil matters, plus misdemeanors and even felonies!

Henry can preside over civil cases with controversies between $200 and $10,000, juvenile cases involving serious misdemeanors and felonies, guardianships, commitments to mental institutions and misdemeanor criminal cases where the maximum fine is less than $500. He has taken on only some of those duties.

Local members of the bar are not happy:

Henry said he saves the county money by avoiding the expense of paying a visiting judge. But several attorneys and former county judges questioned the practicality of a county judge in such a large county taking time away from demanding administrative duties. They also questioned the propriety of a non-lawyer acting as a judge in an urban county.

“No competent defense attorney would agree to have an inexperienced amateur on the bench,” attorney Winston Cochran said.

Henry has presided over misdemeanor plea bargains, which worries state District Judge Susan Criss.

“There are certain things in my job that I do that I have to have legal training to do,” she said. “I am not comfortable with someone who is not a lawyer taking pleas.”

Then again lawyers make mistakes too!

Henry said he took on the judicial duties that his predecessor shunned because it’s cheaper for him to substitute than to pay a visiting judge. “Every day I substitute is a day I don’t hire an additional judge,” Henry said. He scoffed at his critics, saying an attorney is as likely to make a mistake as he is.

That view is supported by David Hodges, the judicial education director for the Texas Association of Counties. Hodges said county judges have a lower rate of cases being overturned than county court-at-law or district judges.

I think this practice has broader implications to the way we see the necessity of a lawyer in society. Does someone need to have a law degree an entrance to the bar to perform all of the tasks a lawyer performs? This argument seems weaker for judges. I mean what happens if a plea agreement is botched, and this comes back years later to haunt a defendant on collateral review?