The Family Court’s Secret Wheel

The Family Court’s Secret Wheel

February 22, 2016

Everyone follows the rules, except the Tarrant County (Fort Worth, TX) family courts.  Across the street from the family courts, is the brand new $4 million dollar courthouse handling the county’s civil and probate cases.  Several blocks away sits the criminal courthouse.  Since 2015, all of these courts are statutorily required to post and utilize a rotating court appointment wheel.

Not only to rotate qualified attorneys appointed on cases, but the courts must post, manage and report all court appointments to the Office of Court Administration. Part of the motivation by Senator Zaffirini authoring SB 1876, is to ensure transparency and foster efficiancy in the Texas courts.  

A Houston probate court judge questioned the new bill.  “As characterized by Judge Olsen, SB 1876 requires judges to make a list of ‘qualified persons’ for appointments, then move down the appointment list in a robotic fashion, ‘mindlessly picking the next person on the list, unless there is cause.’ The judge is no longer free to pick the best qualified person at his disposal, unless he jumps through the hoop of finding good cause,” said the letter. “By requiring a judge to make individual appointments for each case, the legislature is interfering with the manner by which a judge manages his docket.”   

Protective Parents Coalition (PPC) for years have questioned the appointment practices in the family courts and were quite pleased when Senator Zaffirini agreed some of our courts were plagued with a horrible disease called cronyism.  We hoped the problem would be fixed, so we checked.

As of today, the Tarrant County Probate Court Appointment policy can be found here:  TC Probate Appointment Policy. The Tarrant County Criminal Court Appointments are handled through the (Tarrant) Office of Court Appointments. And, the Tarrant County Civil Courts post their qualified court appointment lists on the first floor for the public to view, per Texas Gov. Code 37.005.

IMG_2293 Texas Gov. Code: Sec. 37.005. POSTING OF LISTS. A court annually shall post each list established under Section 37.003 at the courthouse of the county in which the court is located and on any Internet website of the court.

On February 16, 2016, PPC filed an open records request for the family wheel policy, appointments since 9/1/2015, and the public list of qualified attorneys on the wheel.  We were notified today these documents are not considered open records and we must put a request in writing to each judge for the information.  The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Open Records Office stated,

I am in receipt of the above referenced request. However, I am not the custodian of judicial records. Since your request seeks judicial records, you will need to direct your inquiry to each district court judge for the records they maintain. You can get the contact information for each district judge on the County’s web page”

Yes, the family judges maintain the records, but the statute requires posting inside the courthouse and online.  We will file a request to each Tarrant family judge and report back with our results.

One could argue there is no accountability or transparency in the Tarrant County family courts.  

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