A few Dallas County commissioners in recent months have been complaining about the mounting backlog of pending cases in the felony and misdemeanor criminal courts.
We’ve shared their concern and agree that the problem has wrongly delayed justice for victims and deprived the freedom of some jailed defendants who can’t afford to make bail while waiting to go to court.
But unfortunately that’s not the extent of the growing problem of clogged court cases in Dallas County. State data shows that cases are getting backed up in civil and family courts as well.
We’re hesitant to paint the issue with a broad brush; some individual judges dispose of more cases more quickly and more cost-effectively than others. Nonetheless, state and county officials rightly look at the productivity of groups of courts as a whole to identify troubling trends.
That appears to be the case in the five county courts-at-law, where the total backlog of pending cases has ballooned 20% in the last four years, from 5,415 in 2018 to 6,784 in 2021, according to the State Office of Court Administration. These courts handle car accidents, imminent domain, personal injury and other types of disputes.
In the 13 state district civil courts, which handle such cases as medical malpractice and product liability, the backlog has crept up from 18,051 in 2018 to 20,150 last year — or 12%.
In Dallas County’s seven family courts, the uptick was less severe. Pending divorce, child protective, adoption and other cases grew from 54,243 to 55,242 — or 2% — during the same time period.
Even though the pandemic slowed court activity, it doesn’t account for the extent of the backlogs. County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has been sharply critical of the courts, doesn’t think COVID-19 is a leading factor in the problem.
It’s unfortunate that the Dallas Bar Association wouldn’t offer us a comment about the growing backlog of cases, even though for 35 years it has conducted judicial evaluation polls in non-election years.
But Price was happy to talk about the problem. He and Commissioner J.J. Koch have been sounding the alarm about the backlog since spring.
While Price has focused his complaints on the clogged criminal courts, he told us he’s troubled by the backlogs in others, too. “Other people are entitled to their relief as well,” he said.
“This is not political to me. It’s about, ‘Are we going to run efficient county government?’”
It’s about that for us, as well.
And while we still do not yet support his recent suggestion to cut judges’ pay until the backlog problem is resolved, Price’s commitment to examining the issue and pressing for improvement in the name of justice is the right cause.
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