Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt will deliver the annual State of the County address tonight. The speech is expected to touch on several topics, including infrastructure and criminal justice.
Morning Edition host Jennifer Stayton spoke with Eckhardt about the address. She began the interview by asking a more basic question: What’s the job description for a county judge?
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Eckhardt: It's a misnomer that I'm a judge. I don't sit there in a robe with a docket, passing judgment on cases. County judges are the chief executives of the counties across the state. We are an arm of the state. We sit on the commissioners courts. All commissioners courts are five-member courts with one judge and four commissioners. And we establish the countywide policies and the budgets for all of the counties across the state. So I'm a little bit legislator; I'm a little bit executive; I'm a little bit administrative.
Jennifer Stayton: So the State of the County address is coming up, and I'm wondering if you could give us a little bit of preview of highlights of what you're going to be talking about.
Sarah Eckhardt: We've accomplished a lot over the course of the last year. We have some big challenges ahead. We expect to see a lot of movement in both the criminal and the civil justice arena. That is the biggest constitutional deliverable that we have is our justice system. So our jails and our civil and criminal courts are a very big part of what we do. We will be expanding our civil court capacity, which is desperately needed. We'll also be taking a deep-dive on our criminal justice system, with regard to our jail population, the efficiency of our courts system and make sure that we get our DNA lab and our forensics circumstance up and in order.
Jennifer Stayton Some of those projects sound like they might cost a little bit of money. What about the funding for some of that expanding civil courts and some of the other things that you mentioned?
Sarah Eckhardt: We are the state court system. We are the arm of the state that provides this court system. So, we look to the state for considerable funding. The state pays our district judges salaries, as well as many of our court programs. But, as we saw last year, Gov. Abbott withdrew a lot of our funding over immigration policy. I believe that that's deeply unfortunate. We don't do immigration policy at the county level. We have no dog in that hunt, and we don't want to have any dog in that hunt.
Jennifer Stayton: So it was just about a year ago when Gov. Greg Abbott canceled about a million and a half dollars in criminal justice grants for Travis County, and that was over the policy, at the time, of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez to not honor all federal immigration detention requests. Now, in the intervening time, there was a court case decision from a federal appeals court. She did change the policy to honor all federal immigration detention requests on local jail inmates. So, is it possible to reapply for that state funding then in criminal justice grants, or what is the status of that now that Travis County is doing things differently than before?
Sarah Eckhardt: It is possible to reapply. Sheriff Hernandez changed her policy because the law changed. The Texas Legislature changed the law at the state level. So she had no choice, as a law enforcement agent. It is possible for us to reapply for that funding. We will reapply, as well as make an application for other appropriate funding at the state level. The funding ... was withdrawn ... [from programs that] have nothing to do with immigration. It includes Veterans Court. It includes a special docket on Child Protective Services to assist families who are trying to regain custody of their children.
Jennifer Stayton: Do you expect that, in reapplying, Travis County might be able to get some of those criminal justice grants back, or are there any provisions that come along with applying for the funding?
Sarah Eckhardt: There are provisions that come along with applying for the funding. There is a requirement that either the sheriff or the county judge, myself, pledge to honor any request for assistance from the federal government in the prosecution of immigration laws, which, again, are federal laws. We have nothing to do with them. That's problematic for us. Our resources are so tight, and we really want to dedicate them to public safety issues. We don't care where you were born. If you're the victim of a crime, or if you're a perpetrator of the crime, we want to address that circumstance.
Jennifer Stayton: So the county could apply, but there is no guarantee the funding will come back?
Sarah Eckhardt: That's true. But we see this in so many other areas. When state legislators stop governing and prevent locals from governing, it really does rob the people at the local level of their local democracy. We are the incubators at the local level of good government of, of innovation. When we try stuff out and it works, we scale it statewide. And when we try stuff out and it doesn't work, it's a safe place to pilot things and pull the money off of something that didn't work and move it to something that does. We are much more nimble. We have the ability to be much more creative so we will keep doing that, even in the face of a state, and even federal government, that is really not doing a lot of governing these days.
Jennifer Stayton: Overall, from your vantage point, what would you say is the relationship between Travis County and the State of Texas?
Sarah Eckhardt: I really like working with my state colleagues, and there are many, many people at the state level who are doing amazing work. So, I am keeping the door open and the lights on. We have common goals, and if I can find a more effective, more efficient and more fair way to get to the goal, I know that there are people on both sides of the aisle at the state level and at the local level that will embrace those good programs. So, like I said, I'm keeping the door open and the lights on.
Jennifer Stayton: Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, we thank you so much for your time today and we look forward to future conversations.
Sarah Eckhardt: Thanks so much, Jennifer.