LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Attorney vs. Non-Attorney as County Judge

By Dusty Gallivan, Odessa

The “Judge” in county judge is misleading. If you examine the responsibilities of a county judge in Texas, you will find that over 90% of a county judge’s duties are administrative. (Presiding officer of the Commissioners Court; Represents the county in many administrative functions; Serves as budget officer in counties with fewer than 225,000 residents; Preside over misdemeanor criminal and small civil cases, probate matters and appeals from the Justice of the Peace Court; Serves as head of emergency management.) (Texas Association of Counties). Texas law specifically states that a County Judge does not require a legal education.

Yes, a County Judge does have some judicial responsibilities, which may vary from county to county. Currently, in Ector County, the county judge is assigned 20 percent of criminal misdemeanor cases, guardianship cases, some probate cases, and some mental health hearings. The remaining 80 percent of criminal cases, some family law cases, some civil cases, and some guardianship and probate cases, are handled by the two County Courts at Law.

If we look at Midland County, their county judge is not an attorney and focuses the majority of his time on the administration of the County. Although, he does have judicial responsibilities such as what is outlined above, minus the criminal cases. Midland also has two County Courts at Law who handle all criminal misdemeanor cases.

If we look at counties of similar size to Ector County, the vast majority of them are led by a county judge who did not attend law school, and they seem to function at a higher level than Ector County. Why? I would suggest it is because budgets, leadership, and administration are not taught in law school. Even if an attorney is in private practice, chances are they hire someone to handle their finances, or at least assist them. And if an attorney comes from the public sector, then they almost never will have that experience. (Please note, our former County Judge Susan Redford was an anomaly. She was an attorney but also had the unique skill of handling administrative and budgetary tasks.)

So what difference does it make? Why should we care if our county judge has a law license? In my opinion, we shouldn’t. We should elect the most qualified individual possible to be responsible for the operations and budget of Ector County. A county judge is the onlyindividual who can accomplish the administrative duties described above. The 5 percent of judicial responsibilities that a non-attorney can’t complete (criminal cases) can be accomplished more efficiently by Ector County’s excellent County Court at Law Judges.

I have heard it said that if we do not have an attorney as our county judge, criminal cases will back up and our jail will get more crowded. This is completely false, and I take offense to that statement because, as the Ector County Attorney, it is my responsibility to ensure criminal misdemeanor cases are handled as quickly and efficiently as possible. The County Attorney’s Office will continue to process over 6,000 cases a year, even with two judges. I would suggest that misdemeanor criminal cases will move more efficiently through the criminal justice system since we will not be required to work with a judge who is spending 90 percent of his time on administration.

The mere fact that someone has a law degree does not qualify them to be our county judge. In order to move Ector County forward, we need to elect someone with experience with large budgets; someone with leadership experience; and someone who has experience with administration of a large organization. If all things are equal, then, and only then, would a law degree be a deciding factor. It’s time we elect experience!