The Texas Tribune | By Terri Langford
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht on Wednesday called on state lawmakers to continue their support for legal aid to the poor and military veterans and to complete unfinished work on truancy reform for students.
"For the past six years, at the judiciary's urging, the Legislature has provided critical financial support for the legal system's efforts to provide basic civil legal services to the poor," Hecht told a joint meeting of the Texas House and Senate in his State of the Judiciary address, which the chief justice delivers at the beginning of every legislative session.
He urged lawmakers to extend that support and to look harder at programs that help military veterans in the legal system.
"Too often, servicemen and women return from duty to find benefits delayed, families struggling, jobs scarce, homes in foreclosure and debt collectors at the door. These enemies at home can be as real a threat to a veteran’s survival as the enemies faced in the field," Hecht said, pushing for a $4 million request to help provide legal aid to veterans.
"Our military cannot return from risking their lives in defense of our freedoms and values only to find that the justice system they fought for has left them behind," Hecht said. "Their access to justice must be assured."
Hecht, a Republican and member of the state's highest civil court for 26 years, also talked about how cooperation between the Legislature and the judiciary has led to effective legal reforms.
He singled out how state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and other juvenile justice experts' meeting with justices to discuss school ticketing of disruptive students spurred reforms in 2013. One year later, there was an 83 percent drop in criminal filings under the Education Code. "That's 90,000 fewer tickets written," Hecht said. "As a result, more kids are in classrooms and out of courts."
Hecht pressed lawmakers to extend the reforms this session to truancy and attendance laws. "Playing hooky is bad, but is it criminal?" he said.
The chief justice reminded legislators that the judiciary takes up very little of the state's budget, with only one-third of 1 percent of the budget going to Texas court system
"You're getting your money's worth," he said.
At a news conference after his speech, Hecht continued to make the case for increased legal aid funding. He was joined by fellow Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, former U.S. Supreme Court nominee and Dallas attorney Harriet Miers, and several House lawmakers, including state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.
“It’s humanitarian for the people who need service, it’s good for the economy, it gets people back on their feet,” Hecht said. “And, importantly, for the court, it’s essential to the rule of law.”
He said that four out of five of those who qualify for legal aid in the state are currently turned away. The additional $4 million in funding earmarked specifically for veterans would help all of those eligible for legal assistance, Hecht said, because it would free up existing funds for others in need.
Davis and Thompson both spoke in favor of House Bill 1079, bipartisan legislation they said they've filed to help address the budget shortfall for legal aid programs.
“We are keeping the doors of the courthouse open for those who need to have access to justice but who do not have the money to pay for legal services,” Thompson said.
Morgan Smith contributed to this story.