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Municipal court, the court closest to the people Part 1 of 3

November 01, 2023 - 00:00
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At the Oct. 23 Navasota City Council Meeting, Mayor Bert Miller issued a proclamation recognizing Nov. 6-10 as Municipal Court Week. The Proclamation pointed out that “more people come in contact with municipal courts than all other Texas courts combined and public impression of the Texas judicial system is largely dependent upon the public’s experience in municipal court.”

In this three part series, the Examiner takes a look at the structure, jurisdictional responsibilities and challenges prompted by unlicensed drivers, lack of parental responsibility and juvenile crime as well as the officers of the court who keep the wheels of justice turning.

The Texas Court structure consists of three levels: trial, appellate and supreme. The December 2022 publication, The Texas Court System, in the Dee J. Kelly Law Library at Texas A&M University School of Law reported that at the trial court level, there are more than 450 district courts, over 500 county courts, and 800-plus Justice of the Peace courts. Municipal courts, perhaps the closest to the people, number approximately 950 with 1,286 judges.

One of those judges is Navasota Municipal Judge Pat Gruner. Gruner was appointed and sworn in April 22, 2019, following the retirement of the late Judge John Leflore. Texas law allows for non-attorneys to serve as judges but Gruner wasn’t a stranger to the gavel having served as Navasota mayor from August 2002 through May 2006 and continuing as a city council member through May 2007.

Municipal courts free up the higher courts to deal with more serious crimes by adjudicating the Class C misdemeanor (fine only) cases. In 2016, U.S. municipal courts handled 5,589,502 new cases and collected approximately $680 million in fines and court costs. In Texas, approximately one-third of each fine is remitted to the State.

City funded

If a city has a police department, it must have a municipal court, and the city finances all costs related to court operations. The Navasota City Council appoints its municipal judge every two years. Though not a city employee, judges are “hosted” and paid by the city. Gruner describes her relationship with the Navasota City Council as “arm’s length.”

Gruner said, “Interestingly, the only court funded by the State of Texas is the Texas Supreme Court.”

Court is held in City Council chambers at 200 E. McAlpine Street, Monday- Friday, 8 a.m. – 9 a.m., or “until everyone has been seen.”

In addition to serving the City of Navasota, state statute allows Gruner to serve as a part-time municipal judge for the City of Waller.

Judge school!

Addressing the learning curve for non-attorney judges, Gruner had nothing but praise for the training resources available.

She said, “Within a month of being appointed, municipal judges are required to attend a weeklong training session in Austin for newly appointed municipal judges. Every year, municipal judges and clerks are required to attend a minimum of 16 hours of continuing training.”

She continued, “After state legislative sessions, we attend a two-day Legislative Update training so we will be aware of changes to the laws. Many other online training updates are offered to court personnel. It’s a continuous learning process.”

She also gave kudos to the Texas Municipal Court Association and its team of attorneys available to answer questions as well as the City Attorney.

Gruner said, “Navasota employs a City Attorney who, among other duties, serves as the City Prosecutor whenever a municipal case goes to trial due to the defendant pleading not guilty.

According to Gruner, the percentage of ‘not guilty’ pleas is usually less than 5% and most cases are resolved without a trial. The defendant may elect a trial by the judge or by a jury of six people.

Staff kudos

Navasota’s Municipal Court is overseen by Municipal Clerk Rochelle Jessie.

Gruner said, “She has capably served the City for almost 30 years. She is a full-time City employee and is extremely knowledgeable about laws and is a huge asset to the Court.”

She continued, “The Navasota Police Department does an amazing job of serving and protecting, and trying to keep residents safe, risking their lives every day. City Manager Jason Weeks and City staff are a hard working team whose dedication is often taken for granted. It’s an honor to be part of such a talented team of people.”

Next week: Part two – Municipal court, more than traffic court!