Image: Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Edie Connelly.
Conroe, The Woodlands, Willis, New Caney, Magnolia, June 22 – A detailed review of the five Justice of the Peace Courts in Montgomery County reveals a start financial contrast among them. Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Edie Connelly, whose Court is in The Woodlands, is, by far the most efficient and productive, while Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace G. Trey Spikes of Conroe is in a close second place in efficiency and financial efficacy. Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts of New Caney clearly exhibits substantial financial inefficiency.
The methods of collecting fees and fines contrast sharply between Judge Connelly who is the only one of the five who utilizes the Odyssey software and database system which the five County Courts at Law and eight District Courts also utilize. The four other Justice Courts – that of Spikes, of Metts, of Precinct 1’s Wayne Mack, and of Precinct 5 Justice of the Peace Matt Masden – utilize a vastly different collection system that appears to be costing Montgomery County millions of dollars in fines and fees. That collection system, employing an outside private law firm, Graves Humphries Stahl, Ltd., and their Net Data software package, has always been highly controversial and clearly imposes severe financial and judicial limitations on its user. (Some of the judicial concerns of Net Data are in a companion article in today’s issue of The Golden Hammer entitled “Net Data versus Odyssey presents contrast in transparency and judicial information access.”)
Let’s look at the numbers
Since we’re in the middle of Fiscal Year 2017, this article examines the performance and expenditures of the Justice Courts during Fiscal Year 2016, which ran from October 1, 2015, through September 30, 2016, as confirmed in the recently-completed Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2016, which the Montgomery County Commissioners Court approved earlier in 2017. Fiscal Year 2017 numbers are quite similar to the Fiscal Year 2016 numbers for which their are complete figures.
The following table contains the case disposition numbers for the Texas Office of Court Administration for each of the five Montgomery County Justice Courts for Fiscal Year 2016:
Numbers of Type of Case Disposed JP #1(Mack) JP #2 (Spikes) JP#3 (Connelly) JP #4 (Metts) JP #5 (Masden)
Criminal cases disposed 10,609 9,541 23,068 23,637 4,783
Civil cases disposed 1,357 1,120 2,059 1,336 862
Total cases disposed 11,966 10,661 25,127 24,973 5,645
The numbers that are most striking about the five Justices of the Peace are their Fine and Fee Collections and their Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Budgets:
Financial statistic (FY 2016) JP #1(Mack) JP #2 (Spikes) JP#3 (Connelly) JP #4 (Metts) JP #5 (Masden)
Fines, fee collected $1,387,647 $1,387,229 $3,469,435 $1,427,538 $739,269
Annual Budget for Court $787,257 $495,673 $926,921 $852,763 $496,238
P Factor (Fines minus Budget) $600,390 $891,556 $2,542,514 $574,775 $243,041
Efficiency = P Factor/Total cases 50.17 83.63 101.19 23.02 43.05
Those numbers reveal the Judge Connelly is, by far, the most efficient of the five Justices of the Peace in terms of her efficiency of fine and fee collection in proportion to the numbers of cases disposed in that Court. Judge Spikes actually has done quite well on a small budget to collect the amount of fees he’s collected. Mack and Judge Masden are in the middle of the range. Judge Metts collected a very small amount of fines and fees in proportion to the total numbers of cases he disposed.
There’s another statistic that’s striking with respect to Judge Connelly’s Court operations. Her P Factor, the total fines her Court collected minus the Court’s Annual Budget is a number that exceeds all of the P Factors of the other four Justice of the Peace Courts combined. In other words, the Court has more positive cash flow from Judge Connelly’s Court than the positive cash flow of all four of the other Courts combined.
Are numbers really the issue?
Justice of the Peace Courts in Texas have historically been sources of positive cash flow for local governments. They hearing criminal cases which are Class C misdemeanors generally involving traffic offenses or public intoxication, while their civil jurisdiction is over cases concerning disputes over $10,000 or less. Justice Courts also hear evictions, foreclosures of liens against personal property, and other smaller civil matters.
In an interview last evening with The Golden Hammer, Judge Connelly expressed appreciation for this newspaper’s statistics about her strong performance numbers but noted that she is “equally concerned with the integrity of the judicial system.” Judge Connelly expressed her respect for all four of her Justice Court colleagues.
Judge Connelly explained, “The Precinct 3 Justice Court has a great staff. We also utilize the services of the County’s collections office which does a great job and works closely with the Court staff. We can easily review reports and obtain data from them. Also, using the Odyssey operating system has been really good for the efficiency of this Court.”
Connelly explained that she did not accept the Graves Humphries/Net Data collection system, because “I would never want a private collection system for court fees, because I believe the collection staff must take great care to protect the legal rights of the public throughout the entire collection process. I also believe the public deserve access to court information with great ease.”
Judge Masden’s Precinct 5 Justice Court is a bit different from the others, because his case load is substantially less for both criminal and civil matters. As a result his court likely has less economy of scale, a phenomenon which the Federal Judicial Center has noted in several recent studies concerning the economy of courts throughout the United States. Judge Masden has clearly shown substantial frugality of his Court’s Annual Budgets as a result of his smaller caseload. He has proposed a Fiscal Year 2018 Budget that will be the same as his Fiscal Year 2017 Budget, despite the population and business growth of the geographic area over which his Justice Court has jurisdiction.
Judge Connelly has also requested a Fiscal Year 2018 Budget that will be the same as the previous year as has Judge Spikes. Mack has requested a Fiscal Year 2018 Budget that keep his Departmental Budget salaries the same while implementing very slight reductions in non-salary related expenses. Judge Metts has kept proposed a Fiscal Year 2018 Budget that is the same as his Fiscal Year 2017 Budget.