With the creation of two new courts for McLennan County and the resignation of a justice on Waco’s intermediate appellate court, lawyers and judges are lining up to fill the judicial benches.
McLennan County commissioners on Tuesday said they are waiting for Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature on the bills that created a new county court-at-law and a new state district court for McLennan County. However, commissioners have been assured that the new courts are a done deal and set a June 11 deadline to receive applications for judge of the lower court.
Commissioners will appoint the judge of the county court-at-law, the county’s third county court-at-law, while Abbott will appoint the judge for the new 474th State District Court.
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said commissioners will start interviewing applicants shortly after the June 11 deadline and hope to appoint someone by the end of the month.
Abbott also will appoint a replacement for former 10th Court of Appeals Justice John Neill, who resigned last month from the three-judge panel. Longtime county officials say it is unprecedented for McLennan County to have three judicial openings at the same time.
The bills authorize the new county court-at-law to come online Sept. 1, while delaying the effective date of the new state district court until Oct. 1, 2022.
McLennan County commissioners in November adopted a resolution requesting the new courts, saying the county has experienced substantial “economic and population growth” in the past 15 years and anticipates significant growth in the near future with manufacturing and warehousing employers coming to McLennan County.
Plus, they said, the new courts are needed to help judicial officials extricate themselves from significant backlogs worsened by court shutdowns during the pandemic.
The problem the county faces now that the courts have been approved is where to put them since the county’s 119-year-old courthouse and adjacent courthouse annex have reached capacity.
The county just spent $1 million to gut the old downtown jail on Columbus Avenue, and commissioners are considering converting that structure into a potential home for the new courts and possible areas to expand the district attorney’s office and the district clerk’s office, Felton said.
“There are short-term and long-term plans,” Felton said. “Short term is to try to find available space here for the county court-at-law and then next year for the additional district court. We are reviewing different options, including creating courtrooms in the old downtown jail and finding some space among some nooks and crannies here in the courthouse. Everything is in play, but we are very interested in keeping the historical significance of the courthouse.”
Felton said something that is not in play is the construction of a new criminal justice center, as some longtime county officials have lobbied for.
The visiting courtroom in the annex could be used, and existing courtrooms possibly could be used when current judges are not using them, he said.
While commissioners begin to accept applications for County Court-at-Law No. 3, at least three candidates have said they are interested in the appointment, including retired state district judge Ralph Strother and Waco attorneys Will Hutson and Ryan Luna.
Strother, 77, retired in January after serving 22 years as 19th State District Court judge in McLennan County. He was forced out of office by state-mandated age limitations. However, there are no such age limits for county positions, and Strother has said he would like to continue to serve.
Hutson, 54, also serves as municipal judge in Crawford and associate municipal judge in Hewitt. He is a former registered nurse who might be better known as a YouTube sensation for his songs with his law partner, Chris Harris. Their original songs offer light-hearted legal advice in two-part harmony, such as “Don’t Eat your Weed,” “Please Shut Up” and “Miranda.”
Luna, 32, is a personal injury lawyer with the Carlson Law Firm in Waco. The Baylor University Law School graduate worked previously as a law clerk for the Attorney General of Texas and he interned for the Texas House of Representatives and the Supreme Court of Texas.
Pat Atkins, 56, who served on the Waco Independent School District board for 17 years, said Tuesday he is “strongly considering” seeking the appointment for county court-at-law. Atkins, who practices commercial and civil trial law, was president of the Waco ISD board for nine years.
Those vying thus far for the gubernatorial appointment to replace the 61-year-old Neill are Gary Coley Jr., judge of Waco’s 74th State District Court; Steve Smith, judge of the 361st State District Court of Brazos County; Waco attorney Alan Bennett; Waco attorney Gina Parker; Steve Kotara, an Arlington trial and appellate attorney who was a staff attorney at the 10th Court of Appeals from 2005 to 2016; and Rick Bradley, a current staff attorney at the 10th Court of Appeals.
If Coley, who serves as the county’s juvenile court judge, wins the 10th Court appointment, that would create a vacancy which also would be filled by the governor.
With the new state district court not coming online until next year, there has not been as much rush for would-be candidates to line up. However, Kristi DeCluitt, a current juvenile court prosecutor and former justice of the peace, assistant city attorney and judicial candidate; and Denny Lessman, Marlin Municipal Court judge and former candidate for Falls County district attorney, both said they are interested in the appointment.
It has been 42 years since McLennan County Court-at-Law No. 2 was created and 15 years since McLennan County got a new state district court, 414th State District Court. The county currently has five state district courts.