BROWNSVILLE, RGV – County Commissioner Dan Sanchez regularly goes to Austin as he represents his county as a member of the Conference of Urban Counties.

Recently, while he was at the state Capitol, he noticed that Hidalgo County was working on legislation that would provide a new funding stream to pay for the construction of a new county courthouse. He thought the legislation would help Cameron County also.

Cameron County Judge Pete Sepulveda, Jr.
Cameron County Judge Pete Sepulveda, Jr.

“The bill was bracketed to Hidalgo but I knew the challenges we face in Cameron County. I thought if we can jump on this bill and include Cameron, it could be a funding source that we desperately need in order to expand our facility or build a new facility,” Sanchez told the Rio Grande Guardian. “Although I did not want to affect the Hidalgo County legislation, I spoke to Rep. Martinez and he was more than happy to carry the amendment and add us to the bill. It was all about being in the right place at the right time, representing the folks of Cameron County.”

Asked how important it is to expand courthouse facilities in Cameron, Sanchez said: “We have expansion currently going on. Right now there is a bill to create two new county courts at law. One would take effect in 2017 and the other in 2019. These would handle misdemeanors on the criminal side, our probates and our civil cases.” Sanchez pointed out that a good average ratio is to have one county court at law for every 100,000 people. “We have a population of 450,000 to 500,000 in Cameron County so clearly our courts are congested. The creation of two additional courts would make us more efficient in carrying out justice.”

The Hidalgo County Courthouse legislation that Cameron County is now part of is Senate Bill 1964, which is authored by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa and sponsored by state Rep. Armando Martinez. The legislation allows Hidalgo and Cameron counties to impose a $40 filing fee for each civil case filed and a $10 filing fee for real property records filed. “The funding stream in this legislation is specifically for courthouse construction or improvement,” Sanchez said. “It is not a perpetual funding stream. There is a cutoff year, 2030. The legislation would allow us to expand our facilities or build new facilities. But, before we build new facilities we would study and analyze our current situation and do what is most efficient so we get the best bang for our buck.”

The Cameron County Judicial Courthouse was opened in 1978. Today it houses eight District Courts, three County Courts at Law that also handle probate court matters, two Justices of the Peace courts with an additional JP court housed off site at a temporary location. In addition housed at this complex is a Child Protective Services Court and Judge. The Attorney General caseload and docket – with its own judge – is housed at this courthouse also.

Cameron County Judge Pete Sepulveda said the Cameron County Courthouse has undergone some improvement and expansion recently but with future courts being proposed and a growing county and growing criminal and civil docket the county is looking to start preparing for a possible new courthouse or expansion of its existing courthouse.

The Commissioners Court at its May 7, 2015 meeting unanimously endorsed HB 2868 (a sister bill to SB 1964) and the potential inclusion of Cameron County in this legislation, Commissioners asked Rep. Martinez to seek an amendment to include Cameron County “in this critically important piece of legislation.”

Sepulveda told the Rio Grande Guardian: “Cameron County and the region as a whole are growing tremendously and our county needs to be prepared for the next 20 to 30 years. Now is the time to start planning for that future and this legislation allows us to start raising the revenue needed to construct or expand our judicial complex. I’m thankful to Senator Hinojosa and Representative Martinez for working to include Cameron County in his legislation.”

Editor’s Note: Cameron County Commissioner Dan Sanchez is pictured in the main photo accompanying this story.