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Are two courts better than one?

Why exactly do we need two top courts in Texas?

A proposal for the upcoming legislative session is resuscitating a debate that goes back to the writing of the Texas Constitution in 1876.

The bill, authored by state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, would abolish the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for all criminal matters, and bring all criminal cases under the Texas Supreme Court, which now hears only civil and juvenile cases.

Texas and Oklahoma are the only two states with their highest courts divided between civil and criminal jurisdictions, though others have considered it as a means to deal with large case backlogs. Last year, lawmakers in Florida considered splitting the state’s Supreme Court, particularly to deal with a growing list of death penalty appeals, but a political battle killed the proposal.

Raymond’s bill and joint resolution, pre-filed last month, would allow the Texas Supreme Court to decide which criminal cases to review but would require that it look at all death penalty appeals.

He says that the change should be a no-brainer, because 48 other states and the federal court system have a single highest court. “The model is there for most of the country,” he said. “The more people talk about it the more they will agree.”

It’s an interesting story, which includes some of the history of the CCA and how it came about. Though the attempt to do away with the CCA has come up multiple times before in the Lege – Rep. Raymond filed similar legislation two years ago that got nowhere – I confess I’d never heard about any of those efforts before. According to Scott Henson, who is quoted in the story and who elaborates on his remarks and the history of the court here, it’s usually the minority party pushing these efforts, as it would result in fewer offices for the dominant party to occupy. That’s as may be, but for what it’s worth I’ve never heard a Democrat talk about this before now. I personally am agnostic on the idea. I doubt it will actually save much money – the extra caseload on a single court would necessitate a much larger staff to handle it – and I do think it will make the appeals process take longer. Having said that, the fact that 48 other states survive with one top court suggests that we’d be just fine, and the fact that “we’ve always done it this way” isn’t really a justification. And hey, if it means that Sharon Keller would be finally put out of a job, then you’d better believe I’d vote for it.

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