Bills to authorize the creation of veterans courts advance in Arizona, Georgia, Washington; South Carolina version lets prosecutor pick the judge and doesn’t let judge get a salary

Many states have statues or rules of court that authorize the creation of “veterans courts”, divisions of trial courts that handle criminal cases involving veterans to provide them the treatment they need to address mental health and other issues that may  have lead to the criminal case in the first place. This year several legislatures took up such authorizing legislation.

Arizona HB 2457 amends an existing law authorizing the creation of homeless courts in the state’s lower tier criminal courts (Justice and Municipal) to include the creation of “veterans court and mental health court” divisions.  HB 2457 has so far advanced unanimously though its House committees, the full House, and its Senate committees.

Georgia SB 320 is similar to the Arizona bill but not identical. Under the Georgia bill veterans court divisions can be created in any court with criminal jurisdiction. Moreover, the Georgia bill is more detailed in terms of the operations of the veterans courts, specifying they are to operate under standards and practices to be established and updated by the Judicial Council of Georgia. Prosecutors “may” dismiss cases of those who successfully complete the veterans court program and courts “may” reduce or modify any sentences related thereto but specifically not below statutory minimums. SB 320 cleared the House on March 11 and is or will be before the governor for approval.

Illinois, which statutorily authorized the creation of veterans courts some years ago, has a bill (HJR 75) to encourage their use and creation.

Louisiana SB 532 is somewhere between the Arizona and Georgia bill in terms of jurisdiction: the state’s main trial court (District) is authorized to create veterans court divisions but the lower criminal courts are not. The bill provides that while the District Judge makes the final determination of eligibility for the veterans court program, the district attorney makes the final determination on  revocation, extension, or dismissal. SB 532 is before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Mississippi had a series of bills to create veterans court divisions (HB 889, SB 2029, SB 2111). Only HB 889 made it out committee before dying in the House appropriations committee.

Nebraska LB 1105 expands an existing statute authorizing drug courts and problem solving courts to include veterans and servicemembers court divisions. LB 1105 had a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 20 but proceeded no further.

New Jersey has two veterans court bills. AB 1916 authorizes a pilot program in a single county (Burlington) for nonviolent offenders. This bill has been submitted every year for the last 3 legislative sessions in the Assembly and/or the Senate but never received committee approval. It is currently in the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The second such bill, SB 227 is broader, authorizing the pilot program in two “vicinages” (collections of one or more counties) one of which must  be Burlington County. It was first introduced last in the 2012/2013 session and has been reintroduced. It is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Oklahoma HB 2802 is just the latest attempt going back to at least 2009 to provide statutory authorization for veterans court divisions. This version failed to advance out of committee.

South Carolina stands alone from the other efforts at veterans courts. Under HB 3014 and HB 4859 the prosecutor (circuit solicitor) rather than an individual court judge or chief judge is authorized to establish the program. The state’s chief justice would assign judge(s) to the division but only “upon the recommendation of the circuit solicitor.” Moreover, the judge assigned would be required to attend training established by the prosecutor. Finally, the judge assigned could not be paid a salary and must serve on a voluntary basis. Prior efforts gave similar powers to the Attorney General, but left the selection of the judge to the Supreme Court “upon the recommendation of the Chief Administrative Judge for that judicial circuit.” (HB 3179 of 2011) HB 3014 passed the full House and came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but has not moved since. HB 4859 was introduced earlier in March 2014 and has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee.

Washington HB 2556 makes two statements with regard to authorizing therapeutic courts in general and veterans courts in particular. In section 2 “The legislature recognizes the inherent authority of the judiciary under Article IV, section 1 of the state Constitution to establish therapeutic courts…” including specifically “Veterans treatment court.” In Section 3, however, the legislature authorizes every trial and juvenile court in the state to establish and operate such courts. HB 2556 passed the full House and the Senate Law & Justice committee in February and remains pending in the Senate Rules Committee. Another bill, SB 5129 introduced in 2013 and carried over into 2014 specifically authorizes veterans’ courts established by the Chief Justice, but has never been heard in committee.