Texas Supreme Court chief justice calls for higher judicial salaries, business courts

Chief Justice Nathan Hecht delivers the State of the Judiciary speech at the Texas Supreme Court building in Austin on April 5, 2023. (Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune, Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called on state lawmakers Wednesday to increase judicial salaries and create a new court system to handle disputes between businesses.

The comments came in his biennial speech on the state of the judiciary, during which he also cautioned against the increasing politicization of the third branch of government. He cited the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election in which the winner was an outspoken liberal, and comments by former President Donald Trump and a Democratic U.S. senator characterizing court rulings as partisan.

“I grow concerned that political divisions among us threaten the judicial independence essential to the rule of law,” Hecht, a Republican, said in the Texas Supreme Court courtroom in Austin. “The left and right, and leaders in both the executive and legislative branches, are in agreement: Judges are not independent, and shouldn’t be; they should take sides — my side.”

He urged judges against partisan decisions, saying the pressure to comply with politics “destroys the rule of law essential to justice for all.”

Both the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court for criminal matters in the state, are made up of all Republicans.

Hecht also slammed Texas lawmakers for routinely failing to provide raises for judges, a longstanding issue for the justice who has served nearly 25 years on the high court. He said the base salary for judges has not been raised since 2013, putting it in second-to-last place in the nation. Currently, the base salary for Texas district judges is $140,000, according to budget documents.

“We cannot expect to recruit top-notch lawyers to be judges when they not only must take a substantial pay cut to leave practice, they are faced with no reasonable hope for dependable raises,” he said.

The Judicial Compensation Commission, he said, recommends an 11% raise for district judges for each year in the biennial budget. The House has proposed a 5% increase for district judges in its most recent budget proposal, but it is not included in the Senate’'s budget proposal.

The chief justice also threw his weight behind controversial measures to support a specialized court system specifically for businesses. Like all civil cases, business disputes are now handled by district judges elected by county, and appealed through the state's 14 intermediate appellate courts before reaching the supreme court.

“Business cases are often more complex than other civil cases, and handling them alongside simpler cases makes for serious inefficiencies,” he said. “The costs and increased uncertainties of such litigation have led businesses to turn to arbitration and other dispute-resolution alternatives with the resulting lack of transparency and development of precedent.”

He noted other states have created specialized business courts. The measures, Senate Bill 27 and House Bill 19, however, have been criticized as a costly way to give special treatment to businesses and create a judicial system under the thumb of the governor.

The measures as filed would create a business court judicial district overseen by seven judges appointed by the governor.


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