Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson told lawmakers today that even though more civil cases are being filed, jury trials have decreased.
That's because many people want to privately arbitrate their claims, believing the private sector offers a simpler, quicker, efficiently priced alternative process overseen by an expert, he said.
But there's a problem with that.
"When citizens flee our judicial system, we lose the public component of justice," Jefferson said in his State of the Judiciary speech.
He noted that lawsuits stemming from private conflicts can affect public interests such as jobs and the environment. While private dispute resolution can play a valuable role, he said, it also carries hidden costs by virtue of the fact decisions can't be used to set precedents and there's virtually no review.
Jefferson said the right to arbitration should be preserved, but courts should be reconfigured so they better respond to people who use them.
His suggestions: Lawmakers should consider allowing district courts to specialize more by focusing just on family law, business, mass tort or criminal trials. It may be time to address overlapping,confusing geographical jurisdiction of courts. The trial court system -- which includes "often redundant" county courts at law, district courts and statutory probate courts -- may need to be streamlined.
Among other points, Jefferson also urged lawmakers to establish a commission to study ways to free innocent convicts. Although there can be false claims of innocence, he noted, some inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing.
"I cannot imagine wasting away in prison for a crime I did not commit," Jefferson said. "Can you?"