The Dallas County Commissioners Court serves as both the legislative and executive authority for Dallas County. The court is comprised of four members, namely four commissioners and a county judge. The four commissioners each represent one of the four county districts and are chosen separated by the voters of each district. The county judge is chosen by the voter of the full county and serves as the head of the Commissioners Court. Unlike in other parts of the state, the Dallas County Commissioners Court does not exercise any judicial powers. As a sub-state institute, the Court can only exercise the specific powers that it has been granted by the state. Accordingly, the Court has authority over the Dallas County budget, the power to set the county tax rate, approve boards and commissioners, and oversee the administration of the government.
The Court has direct authority over several county departments such as the County Public Defender and the Department of Health and Human Services. The Court, however, does not have direct authority over any other elected county official. In Dallas County other elected officials include the: County Clerk, Sheriff, County Tax Collector, County Treasurer, District Attorney, and the County Judiciary which includes district judges, county judges and justices of the peace. Each elected official generally is in charge of a specific county department such as the County Attorney’s Office or the County and District Courts. Accordingly, while the Commissioners Court has the authority to approve the budget of all county departments, once the budget is approved, how the department is administered is strictly controlled by elected official that heads it.
As a result of the political structure of Dallas County, the main “policy” of the Commissioners Court is budgetary policy. Accordingly, the Commissioners Court is generally believed to have exclusive policy jurisdiction in making decisions on the funds to staff the county government and provide the necessary services that the county government is expected to deliver. However, the Commissioners Court’s budget approval authority is limited in certain circumstances by the district court. For example, the Commissioners Court must approve additional funds if a district court determines that the funds as necessary for its proper functions. Indeed, under the 1983 case District Judges of the 188th Judicial Division v. County Judge Gregg County, the court noted that because of the judicial branches dependence on the executive and legislative branches for funding and the “practical enforcement of its decrees,” they possess an inherent power to “require the legislative and executive branches” to provide the necessary funding needed to perform its judicial functions. Under this case, therefore, the Commissioners Court is limited in how much money it must budget for the County and District Courts. If the budgeting for these departments is to low, the districts courts have the power to demand that the court raises the budget allocation as long as the demand is reasonable and points to specific evidence that the funds are essential for the proper functioning of the courts.
Alternatively, the Commissioners Court has used its power over the budget to try to influence the administration of the county’s criminal courts. Last year, the Commissioners Court called on judges to expedite the resolutions the criminal court’s case docket and create a more uniform method for judges to dispose of their cases (Watkins, 2014). According to the Court, the in April 2014, the county’s felony courts not only had a nearly 4,000 case backlog but also had a wide disparity in the time by which individual judges resolve their cases (Watkins, 2014). As a result, the Commissioners Court said that delays in resolving cases were costing the county money that could be used in other areas. The Court approves the district court’s budgets including the salaries of the court coordinators who are tasked with scheduling the court’s calendar, but as mentioned have no control over “when they work or how they manage their courts’ calendars” (Watkins, 2014). This illustrates another limit of the policy jurisdiction of the Court. On the one hand, it is legal barred from having a role in how the courts are administer once a budget is approved. On the other hand, it is required to fund the county and district courts to the extent that they court deem reasonably necessary to function properly. But with the increasing number of criminal cases in Dallas County and inmates that result from those criminal cases, the budgetary requirement of the county and districts court will only increase, forcing the courts to require increasingly bigger budgets to function.
The Commissioners Court’s budgetary policy jurisdiction in regards to the courts is therefore unclear. While it has a responsibility to make sure that there are enough funds for county servicers, those funds cannot and must not be hoarded by one county department. All departments must be provided for. Accordingly, under normal circumstances this might include cutting the budget of one department to be used by another. For example, the Court could “freeze” the salaries of the court coordinators and use those saving in Health and Human Services. But under the District Judges case, there is no clear standard by which the Court can know how much to cut form the county and district court’s budgets will provide enough savings for the county but also allow the courts to function properly. Currently, the only option for the Court is to make a cut that it finds as reasonable then wait for the court’s response.
Dallas County Commissioner Court. “Introduction.” 2015. Web. Http://www.dallascounty.org/department/comcrt/comcrt.php
District Judges of the 188th Judicial Division v. County Judge Gregg County, 657 S.W.2d 908 (1983). https://casetext.com/case/dist-j-188th-v-cty-j-gregg-cty?page=909
Watkins, Matthew. “Dallas County commissioners push for criminal courts to be more efficient.” Dallas Morning Star. dallasnews.com, 03 Jun. 2014. Web. http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/2014/06/dallas-county-commissioners-push-for-criminal-courts-to-be-more-efficient.html/