The justice system in Texas is vast and complex - a multilayered set of public and private institutions and processes responsible for enforcing and adjudicating our laws in overlapping federal, state and local jurisdictions.
This sprawling system is charged with enforcing traffic laws, hearing small and large claims cases in civil court, trying capital murder suspects, investigating so-called white collar crime, operating jails and prisons, monitoring criminal parolees, and more. At the extreme, it is responsible for carrying out the ultimate criminal punishment, taking the life of criminals convicted of a capital felony. Exploring this chapter's interactive feature Casing Texas Courts reveals just how many cases, and how many different kinds of cases, the state court system handles in a single year.
Its huge budget includes approximately $3.3 billion in annual state spending for public safety and corrections, plus another $175 million for the court system. Additional millions are spent by counties and municipalities across the state, as well as by the federal government, on the justice system in Texas.
Combine this spending with a political culture in Texas that demands strong punishment for criminal offenders, and the results often lead to headline-grabbing news stories. The tremendous growth of the Texas population and the ever growing complexity of its society have only deepened tensions related to crime, punishment, and overall management of the judicial system.
Compounding these tensions, the highest offices on both the local and state levels of our justice system are occupied by elected officials who often succumb to their worst political instincts when upholding the law. County sheriffs, district attorneys, judges on virtually all levels of the court system, the state attorney general - even state legislators and the governor - strive to maintain a public image of being unstintingly tough on crime. County sheriffs, district attorneys and judges, in particular, get elected and reelected by securing high conviction rates. The partisan election of most officials in the justice system also means that the interests of justice can be vulnerable to financially powerful interests that contribute to campaigns.
Challenges to the proper administration of justice abound in other areas as well, mostly resulting from lack of sufficient funds - despite the large sums spent - to perform the myriad duties assigned to our justice system. Despite their emphasis on being tough on crime, state politicians paradoxically have been unable or unwilling to adequately fund a well-functioning justice system. The results have been well-publicized shortages in funds for critical components of the justice system such as crime labs, public defenders, police training, white collar crimes divisions, and judicial salaries. With a period of renewed federal deficits looming, these problems are likely to be further exacerbated by the increasing scarcity of federal dollars available to supplement state spending.
About the only thing that is well funded is jail construction - although part of the impetus for jail construction came with the mandate from the federal court system to relieve overcrowding. The system of prosecuting accused criminals in Texas is so efficient at winning convictions that the jails have filled as quickly as the Legislature has approved additional construction.
The complex structure and distinctive dynamics of the Texas justice system became painfully evident in the now famous Tulia drug case that spanned more than half a decade beginning in the late 1990s. On the morning of July 23, 1999, the federally funded Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, a large multi-agency operation coordinating the anti-drug efforts of twenty-six counties and three cities, busted an alleged drug trafficking ring in the small town of Tulia. Thirty-nine of those arrested were indicted and later convicted.
Unfortunately, no physical evidence was produced in the case. No drugs, significant sums of money or weapons were found or seized during the raids. Nor did the lead undercover investigator, Tom Coleman, wear a wire during any of the conversations he claimed to have had with a number of those arrested. Nevertheless, the Swisher Country District Attorney's office prosecuted the cases and Detective Coleman was named Texas Lawman of the Year in 1999 by then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn for his work on the cases.
Over the next three years as the cases unraveled in other trial courts, the Texas Court of Appeals, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the legislature and even the governor would become involved. In April 2003, Coleman was indicted on perjury charges for testimony he gave in a review of the trials. This prompted Governor Rick Perry to order the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to review all the cases against those already convicted. Coleman's indictment also led to a request for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to consider ordering new trials.
Then, on June 2, 2003, Governor Perry signed a bill passed by the state legislature allowing fourteen individuals convicted in the Tulia case to be released on bond pending further review of the cases. Finally, on August 23, 2003, Governor Perry pardoned thirty-five of the Tulia defendants.
Subsequent action involved a review by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Texas Attorney General's office to see if the Tulia defendants' civil rights had been violated, and a civil suit was brought by the defendants against the jurisdictions participating in the regional task force. Even the State Bar of Texas took action, filing a disciplinary petition with the Texas Supreme Court against former Swisher County District Attorney Terry McEachern alleging "serious" misconduct.