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Abbott appoints first judges to new appeals court for cases involving state government, businesses


Abbott appoints first judges to new appeals court for cases involving state government, businesses

Jun 11, 2024 | 7:32 pm ET
By Kayla Guo
Abbott appoints first judges to new appeals court for cases involving state government, businesses
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation policy summit in Austin on March 20, 2024. (Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

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Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday appointed three conservative justices to the new 15th Court of Appeals, which lawmakers created last year to oversee appeals involving the state, challenges to the constitutionality of state laws and cases from business courts.

Proponents say the new appeals court will improve judicial efficiency, place people with business expertise on the bench and allow issues with implications statewide to be heard by judges elected statewide. Critics say Republicans created the new courts so businesses and the state could avoid having their cases heard by judges in urban counties where Democrats dominate local judicial races.

Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Scott Brister will serve as chief justice alongside Justices Scott Field and April Farris. They will each serve two-year terms from Sept. 1 through 2026.

“These highly experienced individuals will serve a vital role in our state’s effort to ensure that the Texas Constitution and state statutes are applied uniformly throughout Texas and that businesses have a sophisticated and efficient process to resolve their disputes,” Abbott said in a news release.

The Legislature created the new statewide appeals court last year, granting it jurisdiction to hear cases brought by or against the state of Texas; agencies, departments or boards of the executive branch; or state universities, including any of these entities’ officers. It will also hear appeals out of a new state district court that was created by lawmakers last year to consider cases involving businesses across Texas with disputes valued at more than $10 million. The appeals court will ultimately have five judges, each elected statewide. For its first three years, it will be made up of Abbott’s three appointees.

The bills’ backers — mostly Republicans in the Legislature, in addition to some corporate attorneys who testified in support of the measures — said that the new courts would help reduce case backlogs and ensure that judges hearing complex business cases would have specific expertise in business law. Supporters similarly made arguments for having appellate judges who are familiar with the nuance and complexity of matters that impact state government and all Texans.

But the bills’ opponents argued that Republicans, who control the Legislature, passed the legislation as a way to circumvent Democrat-dominated courts in big cities. Opponents also said that the new business court also created last year and whose appeals the 15th Circuit will hear, would actually bog cases down as parties fight over which court a case should belong in. And some warned that having the governor appoint judges every two years to the business court would leave the system vulnerable to political pressure from parties with cases before the court, who might look to influence the governor’s selections.

Twenty-six other states have some form of a business court. The Legislature last created a new appeals court in 1967 to help manage caseloads in the Houston area.

Brister previously served on the Texas Supreme Court from 2003 to 2009. He was first appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by then-Gov. Rick Perry to serve out the remainder of departing Justice Craig Enoch’s term. Brister was then elected to a six-year term in 2004. He also sat on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, both in Houston, and the Harris County 234th district court.

Field was appointed by Abbott to Williamson County’s 480th District Court in 2022. He was a partner at Butler Snow LLP, a firm in Austin, where he practiced in the appellate advocacy and commercial litigation divisions. He previously sat on the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin. Field is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal network, and the Williamson County Christian Legal Society.

Farris has served on the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston since January 2021. She was previously an appellate litigation partner at Yetter Coleman LLP, a Houston-based firm, and an assistant solicitor general at the Texas Solicitor General’s office. She is an honorary board member for Houston’s Christian Legal Society.

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