Perhaps you have heard the argument that Justice of the Peace judges are the most important trial
judges in the community because, even though their cases are small, these cases impact the lives of
more people on a more regular basis than even federal judges. This may have once been true, but
probably is not anymore because as a society we send so many people to prison. Now, the
misdemeanor courts, that is the County Courts at Law may be the most important because almost every
family these days has a loved one in jail or prison, probation or parole. The County Courts at Law are the
on-ramp to an unfree life.
Similarly, for people in Cameron and Willacy Counties, the 13th Court of Appeals that sits in Edinburg and
Corpus Christi, the first level of appeal, is more likely to make or ruin the life of someone who lives here
than the United States Supreme Court.
This court, the 13th Court of Appeals sitting in Edinburg last month issued one of those rare, but
wonderful decision in which appellate judges protect the freedom of poor people. It is true that the
court in its decision merely followed the law set out nearly four decades ago by the United States
Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia, but that also is noteworthy.
A man named Scales was sentenced to four years in prison by a judge in San Patricio County for, among
other things, not paying probation fees. The 13th Court honored the principle set out in Bearden that
imprisoning a probationer for failure to pay “…would be contrary to the fundamental fairness required
by the Fourteenth Amendment.” Before punishing non-payment, the trial court should have inquired
into why Mr. Scales failed to pay. If he was making a “sufficient bona fide effort to require the
resources” to pay. Otherwise, there is a risk we sentence people to “prison for being poor.” The trial
judge’s decision sentencing Mr. Scales to prison was reversed.
Justice Gina M. Benavides signed this opinion. Justices Dori Contreras and Jaime E. Tijerina joined.
Attorney Denice L Obregon was Mr. Scales’ lawyer on the appeal.