Tarrant County Courthouse Star-Telegram archives
Tarrant County Courthouse Star-Telegram archives

Fort Worth

Chief justice steps down as turnover strains busy Fort Worth appeals court

September 17, 2017 07:00 AM

FORT WORTH

The top judge at the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth abruptly stepped down this month, leaving open a critical post on one of the state’s busiest appellate courts.

Chief Justice Terrie Livingston’s last day was Sept. 8, a little more than a month after informing Gov. Greg Abbott that she had to take a “way-too-early” retirement because of health setbacks following surgery. She had served on the court since 1994 and as chief justice since 2010.

“I feel I am not quite up to my normal energy and stamina,” Livingston said in her Aug. 4 retirement letter to Abbott. Livingston did not respond to a request for comment from the Star-Telegram. Individuals close to Livingston say she had back problems. “Because of this, I have decided my court needs a replacement, and sooner than I had ever planned.”

Former Appeals Court Justice Terrie Livingston
Courtesy photo

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Livingston’s departure comes at a time when the seven-member court is seeing significant turnover.

Justice Sue Walker, now the longest-serving member of the court, has told her colleagues that she does not plan to seek another six-year term. Her term expires in December 2018. Walker, who joined the court in 2001, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Justice Bill Meier is set to leave the court in January 2019. Meier, 77, is being forced to retire by a constitutional provision that prohibits a justice from seeking another term after their 75th birthday. On the bench since 2008, Meier is now second in seniority on the court.

Adding to the game of musical chairs is Justice Bonnie Sudderth’s request to be named chief justice by Abbott. If the governor grants her wish, it would create another opening for him to immediately fill.

Appeals Court Justice Bonnie Sudderth
Courtesy photo

“We had a long term of stability on the court,” said Sudderth, who joined the court two years ago. “Then, all of a sudden, people started retiring.”

Last year, justices Lee Ann Dauphinot and Anne Gardner retired and were replaced in January by justices Elizabeth Kerr and Mark Pittman. The other justice on the court is Lee Gabriel, who has served since 2010.

The appellate justices are paid about $163,000 a year, with the chief justice making slightly more at $165,500, according to The Texas Tribune. The governor’s appointment office did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Making the transition even more difficult is the fact that the court has a heavy workload. The court handles both civil and criminal cases and is often seen as the last resort for many litigants, since it’s required to take all of the appeals filed. The Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals pick and choose their cases

The Fort Worth appeals court gets about 1,000 cases a year, and for the past few years the Texas Supreme Court has been transferring more than 100 of its cases to other courts to balance the workload among appellate jurists, records show.

“We have a lot of people who live in our district and our workload makes us one of the busiest courts in the state,” Meier said.

The court takes cases from fast-growing counties like Tarrant, Denton and Parker but also Archer, Clay, Cooke, Hood, Jack, Montague, Wichita, Wise and Young.

Appointing someone to replace Livingston should come “sooner rather then later” since the chief justice handles crucial administrative tasks, said attorney Ralph Duggins.

“I would hope that either we have some experienced district judges or appellate practitioners or both apply for or run for these open spots,” Duggins said.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB