Redrawing Houston’s Eviction Courts: Any Map is Better Than What We Have Now

Every Monday morning, Judge Israel Garcia, Jr., who serves as Harris County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 5, stares down a punishing docket of eviction, debt collection, and traffic cases for the week. His courtroom has a line out the door of parents and children, desperate to resolve a dispute with their landlord or settle a longstanding debt. But the law can be unfriendly to these defendants, and Judge Garcia must know that relief will never come. 

All Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County deal with large caseloads, but the number of cases in Precinct 5 is seemingly endless. If you visit our Harris County Evictions Dashboard, you’ll see how imbalanced the caseload really is – there are 10 times as many cases in Precinct 5 compared to Precinct 6.

What’s going on here? Do renters in Precinct 5 have a much higher risk of eviction than renters in other areas? Are its residents that much more likely to fall behind on their credit card payments or speed through a school zone? No. The reason why Precinct 5 has more cases is because it has more people –  a lot more people. And it has more people because Harris County hasn’t redrawn the boundaries of JP courts since 1973.

For this blog post, I explore just how lopsided the caseloads in Harris County’s JP Courts have become due to a lack of redistricting over the past 50 years. I also show the results from a simulation I ran of 1,000 new maps for the courts that account for population change. Every single one is better than what we have today.

Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County

In Texas, Justice of the Peace Courts handle certain civil cases – evictions, debt collection, and small claims up to $20,000 – as well as traffic and class C misdemeanor cases punishable by fines. In Harris County, there are sixteen JP courts grouped into eight precincts, with two courts per precinct.

Constables are elected law enforcement officials who serve as bailiffs in the JP Courts. For this reason, the JP precinct boundaries follow the Constable precinct lines.

Most political boundaries get redrawn every ten years following the Census. This is to account for population change, and to make sure political representation is fairer. Congressional districts, state senate and house districts, county commissioner precincts, and city council districts – all of these boundaries have been recently redrawn after the 2020 Census to make sure one voter has the equivalent of one vote.

In Texas, though, there is no requirement for counties to redraw Justice of the Peace court boundaries. In many counties, like Fort Bend and Galveston, the JP lines follow the county commissioner precincts, ensuring that the boundaries are adjusted every ten years to account for population change. In others, like Dallas and Travis counties, where they do not follow commissioner precincts, the JP boundaries are redrawn at the same time as commissioner precincts. 

Harris County, however, stands out among urban counties in holding fast to its longstanding Justice of the Peace boundaries. Not only does this violate the principle of one person, one vote – Justices of the Peace, after all, are elected officials – but it warps the caseloads in these courts and creates barriers to accessing justice for those living in our most populous areas.

More new residents, same old boundaries

While Harris County’s JP Precinct boundaries have stayed the same, the county’s population has grown and shifted. Since the 1970 Census, the population of Harris County has more than doubled, from 1.7 million to 4.7 million residents in 2020. 

And the “center” of Harris County’s population has drifted westward: as the population has grown over the last fifty years, more residents are living outside the loop in neighborhoods on the edge of Harris County.

This pattern of population growth has made JP precinct populations more lopsided than ever before. Turning back the clock to 2000, Precincts 1 and 4 were each home to around 600,000 residents and, even at that time, were roughly 4 times the population of Precinct 6 (the smallest at 158,000 residents). Precinct 5 had over 800,000 residents and was more than 5 times the size of Precinct 6.

The population imbalance between precincts has only grown over the past 20 years. Precincts 4 and 5, in particular, have added a combined 930,000 new residents since 2000 compared with only 400,000 new residents in all other precincts combined. More than 70% of the population growth in Harris County since 2000 has occurred in Precincts 4 and 5. In Precinct 6, the population actually decreased by 23,000.

Today, the population of Precinct 5 is nearly ten times the size of Precinct 6, and Precinct 4 is eight times as large.

The population of renters is equally lopsided across court districts. In 2020, there were more than ten times as many renter households in Precinct #5 than in Precinct #6, and five times as many in Precinct 4.

Uneven populations, uneven caseloads

More people means more cases. As we would expect, the courts that cover the largest populations also have the most cases on their dockets, especially when it comes to eviction and debt collection cases.

For example, Precinct 5 has ten times as many residents as Precinct 6. But between 2018-2021, it had eleven times as many eviction cases, and eighteen times as many Class C misdemeanor cases. 

Similarly, Precinct 4 has eight times as many residents as Precinct 6. Yet there were twenty seven times as many Class C misdemeanor cases filed compared with Precinct 6, nine times as many eviction cases, and seven times as many debt collection cases. 

These disparities in caseloads reflect the staggering differences in  population size between courts.

Drawing a better map

This caseload imbalance is an access to justice issue. How could this be more fair? What would caseloads look like if we redrew the boundaries to account for population change? In short: they would be dramatically more balanced than they are today.

For this analysis, I used a new R package,  redist, that was developed to make it easier for more people to run redistricting simulations.  These simulation analyses allow you to see how thousands of different draws of political boundaries might impact things like voter turnout, election results, and in this case, court caseloads.

The building blocks of the redistricting process are Census Bureau boundaries (blocks, block groups, tracts). Think of these as the puzzle pieces in the redistricting process. After each decennial census, these new census-defined areas are redrawn and released, along with the number of residents living there.

For this analysis, I used 2020 Census tracts and population counts. Census tracts do not perfectly match the old JP boundaries, so I used geospatial methods to match each tract with the JP precinct in which the majority of its area falls.

Next, I used the redist package to calculate 1,000 different possible versions of the eight JP precincts. Every JP map had to meet two basic criteria: equal population size and contiguous boundaries. Contiguous boundaries mean that JP precincts can’t be split in two; you have to be able to drive from one end to the other without crossing into another precinct.

To test whether these new maps would equalize caseloads, I matched each case from 2018-2021 to its 2020 census tract using information from the court record on the defendant’s address. 

This forced me to focus on civil cases only for the analysis. Unlike evictions or debt collection cases, which have to be filed in the precinct where the defendant lives, criminal and traffic cases are filed in the precinct where the offense took place. Unfortunately, the data does not record the location of offense, which makes it difficult to identify the census tract associated with the case. Looking at 1,000 new maps and civil case counts by Census tract, I added up the number of cases that would have been filed in each precinct if the maps were redrawn. I calculated the standard deviation of these new caseloads across courts to test how well each map performed in equalizing the number of cases filed in each court. A low standard deviation means caseloads are more equal, a high number means they are less equal.

Any map is better than the one we have

The results from the redistricting analysis are unequivocable: If you redraw the boundaries to account for population change, literally every other map is better than the one we have now. 

The chart below shows the distribution of the standard deviations from the 1,000 different redraws of the JP boundaries. The height of the bars represents the number of maps with a given standard deviation. The median new map had a standard deviation of caseloads of 7,838, ranging from 3,750 to 10,683.

By contrast, the current map, pictured on the far right hand side of the chart has a standard deviation of 39,157. It has the highest standard deviation – the most skewed distribution of cases across courts – than any of the other potential new maps.

The best map for civil cases and evictions cases – the ones with the lowest standard deviations – are shown below. If these map had been in effect since 2018, the number of civil and evictions cases filed in each court would have been roughly equal. 

The chart below shows the number of civil cases filed in each precinct under three different maps: the current map, the one with the lowest standard deviation for civil cases, and the one with the lowest standard deviation for eviction cases. Unlike the current map, the new maps result in much more even caseloads across JP courts.

Why we need a new court map

There are many reasons why we need a new map for Justice of the Peace Courts in Harris County.

First, it will serve the interest of justice by giving judges more time to consider the merits of a given case. Looking at the total number of cases divided by the total hours that JP courts are open each session, Precincts 4 and 5 have an average of 1 minute to spend on each case every year. Precinct 6, by contrast, has 15 minutes per case per year.

Many civil cases deserve more time and scrutiny. In debt collection cases, for instance, debt buyer companies often lack the necessary paperwork to prove they are suing the right person and that defendants owe the amount they are claiming. When courts are flooded with cases and judges have little time to review, courts transform into ‘rubber-stamp justice’ factories that serve the interests of large corporations.

Second, drawing new court boundaries will improve access to justice by allowing more people to meaningfully participate in the court process without creating a crushing backlog of cases. 

The current system relies on many defendants not showing up to court. In Harris County, around a third of eviction and debt collection cases resulted in a default judgment in favor of the plaintiff due to the defendant failing to appear. While some defendants likely fail to appear because they assume they’ll lose the case, an unknown number might have a legitimate defense to mount if they had a lawyer or were able to attend the hearing. Either way, a justice system that runs smoothly only when one side doesn’t show up isn’t a just system. 

At the same time, overloaded courts have little incentive to encourage more participation among defendants. If every defendant facing eviction in Precinct 5 showed up to court, the system would be overwhelmed, creating a backlog of cases that delays justice for tenants and landlords alike.

Redrawing the maps, then, will increase access to justice in overloaded courts by giving judges more breathing room. With smaller dockets, these courts will be able to better review cases before them, reduce any backlogs, and better accommodate defendants when they do show up to court.

Third, balancing cases across courts will lead to more consistency across Harris County civil courts. This, too, is an access to justice issue. Right now, the amount of time and attention you receive in court depends, in part, on where you (or the person you’re suing) lives. Redrawing the maps will right this wrong for tenants and landlords, debtors and debt collectors.

Finally, redistricting will restore the principle of “one person, one vote” in our Justice of the Peace elections. JP judges are elected officials who can be voted out of office if residents don’t like their decisions or approach to the law. Yet, right now, voters in the precincts with the highest case volumes have the least power to change their elected judges in Harris County. If we’re going to elect judges, we need to make sure everyone has an equal voice.

There’s little stopping Harris County Commissioners Court from redrawing the court boundaries and adopting a new map. Any map they choose, as long as it accounts for the changes in population across the county, will perform better than the one we have today. And after 50 years, we deserve a new one.

David McClendon

David is a sociologist, demographer, and data scientist at January Advisors. You can follow him on Twitter and find his full bio on LinkedIn.