Many courts in Texas enhance the administration of justice in their jurisdictions through the use of walk-in dockets. Walk-in dockets refer to the practice of courts designating specific times for defendants to show up to see a judge or appropriate court personnel regarding charges against them. While defendants are still given a scheduled court date on their citation or summons, an available walk-in docket “makes the court more defendant friendly,” according to Janis Fletcher, Court Clerk for the City of Sherman. At these walk-in dockets, defendants may be able to see a judge to enter a plea, request a payment plan, inform the court of difficulty with satisfying the judgment, or for an indigency determination. Allowing defendants an option where they have some measure of control as to how and when they resolve their cases can lead to increased confidence in the judiciary and, as Janis Fletcher says, “more cases being closed.”
I polled representatives of a dozen Texas municipal courts who were willing to share information about their walk-in dockets and the success they have seen in their cities.
All of the courts that have implemented walk-in dockets tailor them according to the needs of the community as well as the demands and constraints of court staff. The city of Woodway has found that a weekly walk-in docket on Wednesday mornings is sufficient, according to Court Administrator Malia Elkins. Other municipal courts, such as those in Amarillo and Luling, offer times every day when defendants may walk in to see the judge. According to Court Administrator Kim Pekofske, Lancaster Municipal Court offers monthly walk-in dockets with some additional Saturday dockets during warrant round-up.
Getting the Word Out
The most well-intentioned court’s walk-in docket will prove useless if the public is unaware of its existence. Courts use many different tactics to ensure that court users know about the availability of the docket and what can be handled there. In Woodway, citizens are made aware through multiple means including notices on citations, website, collection agency letters, information sheets, and receipts. In Lancaster many of the same methods are used and they also post notice in the court lobby during open court dockets, give notice at the clerk’s window, and through the marshal’s office. In Sherman, defendants are told of the walk-in dockets anytime they contact the court in any manner. In small towns such as Wilson, Idalou, and Petersburg, staff tells defendants when they call and inquire and can also rely partially on word of mouth, as Judge and Prosecutor Jan Blacklock Matthews says “everybody knows everybody and everything.” Once walk-in dockets are established and in practice for a number of years, they can become an institution. According to Court Administrator Victoria Medley, “Amarillo Municipal Court has had the current walk-in schedule for 14 years. It is also posted on-line and attached to all court correspondence emails/mail.” In Midland, the practice has been in place for even longer. According to Presiding Judge Sharon Hatten, “having open walk in sessions is not something new for the City of Midland Municipal Court. The daily open session times have been the same for 30 years. In these sessions, defendants have the opportunity to appear before a judge to discuss their rights and options for cases pending in the Municipal Court.”
Results after Implementation
Courts that can remember a time before offering walk-in dockets have witnessed impressive results. Seguin has offered walk-in dockets for the last ten years. Prior to that, defendants were only allowed to see a judge if they were on a docket. According to Court Administrator Landra Solansky, “defendants seem to like the fact that they are allowed to appear any Tuesday before their scheduled appearance date.” Court Coordinator Cara Everts of Midland says “by making our court more accessible to defendants, we have experienced higher rates of compliance. More people come in, get their citations resolved, and get to experience a justice system in which they are treated fairly and respectfully.” Handling cases at a walk-in dockets can also ease the burden of other dockets crowded with cases. In Addison, their “formal first appearance dockets are much smaller, and the case gets resolved much quicker. People seem to be much happier once someone has listened to them and explained options, according to Court Administrator Paula Dale.
Implementing in Your Court
Establishing an effective process takes time and careful planning. Courts should consider the needs of the community and the availability of staff. The greatest challenge in setting up a walk-in docket is generally time—staff time, judge time, docket wait time. Courts may only have a judge available on certain days that will limit when a docket may be offered. Also, walk-in dockets could lead to large numbers of defendants showing up for multiple reasons, slowing the pace down as necessary paperwork is printed and prepared. Courts should prepare some pilot walk-in dockets and adjust accordingly.
After initial challenges are overcome, courts should begin to see meaningful benefits from this service. Judge Bonnie Townsend said it well: “My thought on the walk-in docket is that it equals access to justice, and if we as public servants want the public’s trust and confidence, then we must earn it.”
What is the greatest benefit to your city and/or the public in offering walk-in dockets?
I think the greatest benefit from a walk-in docket is accessibility to justice. Our citizens and folks from out of town appreciate that the judge is available on a regular basis and do not have to wait two weeks or a month to be seen. We are moving cases along more quickly than those that do not see people on a daily basis. –Bonnie Townsend, Presiding Judge, City of Luling
Many people can take care of their business with the court on their own time. Shorter wait times. Faster resolutions. Continued case activity. –Sharon Jennings, Municipal Court Administrator, City of Corsicana
The public is allowed to appear in Court when it is convenient for them. –Landra Solansky, Court Administrator, City of Seguin
Accessibility to Judges and the court system. –Victoria Medley, Court Administrator, City of Amarillo
The biggest advantage is giving the defendant more options to resolve their cases and easy access to the court. –Kim Pekofske, Court Administrator, City of Lancaster
If the matter can be resolved without a hearing then the person does not have to return thus saving their time away from work etc. – Paula Dale, Court Administrator, Town of Addison