Our view: County's debt-collection program a win on all fronts

·3 min read

At a time when it can be easy to look at any level of government and be critical, it was refreshing this past week to see Lubbock County praised for the way it has responded to a sharp uptick in debt-collection cases.

Specifically, the county’s four justices of the peace are being recognized for the way they have moved the majority of such cases from their respective dockets to the county’s office of dispute resolution, which has trained mediators whose work has helped unclog local court calendars, allowing judges to focus on other priorities.

Judge Jim Hansen (Precinct 1), Susan Rowley (Precinct 2), Aurora Hernandez (Precinct 3) and Lance Cansino (Precinct 4) will receive the National Association of Counties Achievement Award, according to our story earlier this week. The award salutes “innovative, effective county government programs that strengthen services for residents.”

Courts across the country continue to work their way through a case backlog created by the COVID-19 pandemic as it took hold in the first quarter of 2020. Complicating matters that year was a decision increasing the civil jurisdiction cap for justice of the peace from $10,000 to $20,000, opening the floodgates for even more litigation. While the courts were sidelined, the caseload steadily piled up. According to our story, more than 2,000 debt-litigation cases are filed each year in Lubbock’s justice of the peace courts.

Thanks to the vision of the local judges, the program has resulted in some 80% to 90% of such cases being cleared, per Gene Valentini, who oversees the county’s dispute resolution center.

“All across the country, counties are working tirelessly to support residents and drive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Larry Johnson, the association’s president, said in our report. “This year’s Achievement Award-winning programs showcase how counties work every day to build healthy, safe and thriving communities.”

The county’s program requires both parties to participate in the mediation process instead of appearing before a judge. The Lubbock County Dispute Resolution Center has approximately 70 people trained to handle such cases. The idea is to put the two parties in the same room with the hope they can reach a satisfactory agreement with the help of the mediator.

“It empowers the participants to be able to try to work it out (themselves) … They know their position better than the judge does, in a sense,” Kristi Thompson, assistant director of the dispute resolution center, said. “Obviously, I know the judges will be told certain things and so it just gives them an option to be able to get it resolved.”

In many cases, the program is more favorable for the debtor as mediators have more latitude in trying to find a middle ground that is acceptable to both parties. In a trial, it’s all or nothing, with one side winning and the other losing. Justices of the peace must also maintain impartialityhear cases with no advocacy for either side.

“They take both sides and the meet in the middle a lot, which we as judges, it’s more difficult to do that because we’re really not supposed to be bargaining on behalf of the defendant,” Hansen said in our story.

The idea originated with Rowley, who approached Valentini with the notion of sending the bulk of her court’s debt-collection cases to his office. From there, he approached the other justices of the peace, who also began diverting most debt-collection cases to dispute resolution mediators.

According to Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parish, it’s the first time since 2009 the county has been recognized with this type of award. “This is quite an honor, quite an achievement,” he said.

We agree and congratulate the county’s justices of the peace on this much-deserved recognition. The program is a win on all levels, smoothing the path for people involved in debt-collection disputes while enhancing the efficiency and focus of local courts.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Lubbock County's debt-collection program a win on all fronts