Recently, I took a client to meet the county judge in a town where the client’s company is building a mining facility. At the time of scheduling, the client didn’t ask any questions about the purpose of the meeting, but as we were walking into that meeting, he expressed some bewilderment as to why we would be meeting with a member of the judiciary.
County judges are not members of the judiciary, but having lived in Texas for most of my life, it wasn’t until this moment that I realized the county judge system of government is not universal. While a few states have a county judge position, Texas is unique in our employment of a County Commissioner’s Court that is presided over by a county judge. The functions of the court and the judge are not at all judicial. Their biggest responsibility is to manage the county budget by setting the tax rate and funding county managed departments.
But this hasn’t always been the case. The role of the county judge has changed over time. The office and duties were created by the state constitution, which provided for a limited judicial role. Since then, because most elected county judges are not qualified to serve as members of the judiciary, the traditional judiciary assignments have been re-assigned to County Courts at Law.
Today, there are 254 county judges in the state of Texas: one for each county. They control the county purse strings, and as such, they are very powerful. And while the purse strings include the budget for the sheriff’s department and county jail, the judge can no longer sentence anyone to jail time. In fact, in most constitutional county courts, the county judge does not perform any functions of the judiciary, which means that these judges can be as political as they desire. In addition to approving the budget, they approve road construction, appoint board members who control permitting and use political pressure to delay or speed up projects in which they have an interest. They campaign on political issues, support candidates for office, and lobby the Texas legislature.
The function of a county judge is often misunderstood, even by locals. Unless you were fortunate enough to take 7th grade Texas History, a class required of all Texas middle-schoolers, or you make a living by understanding local and state government, you also probably have no appreciation for the role of a county judge and his or her court.
The pervasiveness of this misconception was recently demonstrated on a large scale following the Inauguration of President Donald Trump. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt presided over the Travis County Commissioner’s Court wearing the hat of choice of the feminist movement opposing the president. Her actions received statewide and some national attention because such action would be totally inappropriate and grounds for removal for a member of the judiciary. What some members of the local news media failed to understand is that Eckhart is not bound by Judicial Cannons that prohibit political activity by a member of the judiciary.
Any company doing business in Texas needs to know the decision makers not only at the state level but also at the county and city levels. Employing a Government Relations professional can ensure your company is meeting with all of the relevant elected officials or local leaders who hold an influence over the success of your project.