Shedding light on court backlogs: Texas lawmakers triumph with case-level data act

Texas continues to grapple with persistent court backlogs, which result in delayed justice and serious costs to taxpayers and communities across the state. 

While we can diagnose the basic issues, we have limiting information on what is driving the backlog. The current county-level, aggregate court data collection provides a finite perspective on factors causing delays, failing to capture the true complexities of court proceedings and obscuring the work of individual judges in both rural and urban Texas.

The pandemic further exacerbated the issue, with a significant increase in pending cases. The Office of Court Administration indicated that there were 154,074 more pending cases in Texas district courts as of June 30, 2022 than there were on March 1, 2020 across civil, criminal, family and juvenile case dockets.

But the lack of detailed information obscures the underlying causes of the backlog. District courts report criminal cases in 15 broad categories, including aggravated assault and drug possession, but fail to account for a significant “other felonies” category, which can constitute a quarter of a county’s criminal docket.

In Harris County, for example, the backlog is largely driven by “other felonies” cases, accounting for 26% of the district courts’ pending caseload in 2020. By comparison, the next highest pending criminal case categories were family violence assaults and drug possession cases at 13% and 12% respectively.

The “other felonies” data also fails to distinguish between cases such as time-intensive trials like a public corruption case and more quickly resolved guilty pleas in a straightforward arson case. Moreover, even the most granular data reported to the state is insufficient for determining how old the pending cases are or identifying individual courts with the largest caseloads. 

This leaves us with just enough to see that justice is being significantly delayed for many Texans, but we don’t know enough to fully comprehend the specific drivers, or even the magnitude of, the problems facing our justice system.

House Bill 841, by Rep. Claudia Ordaz, D-El Paso, and Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston, currently awaiting the Governor’s signature, would address this by codifying and ensuring the collection and analysis of accurate and comprehensive court data. This has been a long-standing goal of the state’s judicial leadership. In 2018 and 2022, the Texas Judicial Council, the state judiciary’s policymaking body, recommended Texas take this important step. 

The real-world impact would be moving away from static, aggregate, county level reporting of what happens in courts to a more rich set of data attached to individual cases, capable of more complex analytical methods. It is not just about better understanding court backlogs, it is about empowering communities across Texas with transparent and accountable judicial processes. 

Critically, the funding required for essential IT court upgrades to facilitate this data collection was included in the House and Senate base budget bills at the beginning of the legislative session and will provide the necessary resources to implement a comprehensive case-level data collection system.

Texas is at the threshold of a new era of transparent, accountable and effective court management. HB 841 represents a basic principle — data is not just a byproduct of the judicial system but an asset to the administration of justice.

Read more:

Love this blog? Support our work.