Legislation on Veterans Courts: authorizing such courts vs. requiring their creation

Over the last several years courts and legislatures have shown an interest in creating “veterans courts”, specialized dockets or processes to handle criminal cases involving veterans and servicemembers. Last year both Tennessee (SB 711 / HB 854) and Utah (SB 214) enacted bills that authorized the creation of such courts in their respective states while Washington (SB 5107) passed a law encouraging their creation. In 2016, several bills are actively looking into this area.

Arizona: “shall establish”

In 2014 the legislature took an existing statute that authorized homeless courts and expanded it to include authorization for “veterans court and mental health court” divisions (HB 2457). This year there is a proposal to mandate the creation of such programs. HB 2554 of 2016 would provide such veterans courts must be established and that certain cases involving DUIs must be sent to such programs.

The presiding judge of the superior court in each county shall establish a veterans court to adjudicate cases filed in the superior court, and, if a veterans court is not established pursuant to section 22.601, to adjudicate cases filed in a justice court or a municipal court in the county….the presiding judge of the superior court shall establish the eligibility criteria for referral to the veterans court.  The criteria must include a mandatory referral requirement for any case that is filed against a veteran and that alleges only a violation of section 28.1383, subsection A, paragraph 1, 2 or 4.

HB 2554 is in the House Judiciary Committee

California: “shall develop”

As previously noted, three times the California legislature passed bills to require or force the state’s judiciary to create veterans courts and three times (by two different governors) the bills were vetoed, with notations that many courts already had such programs and that the decision to create new ones should be decided by the courts themselves. That hasn’t stopped a fourth round of legislation.

AB 863 would require every Superior Court individually, or together with a neighboring county, create veterans courts (“each superior court shall develop and implement a veterans court”).  The bill spells out who would be eligible and how the veterans court would operate.

AB 1672 would specifically require the creation of such courts in counties adjacent to San Luis Obispo that do not already have such programs as a regional, rather than a county, based veterans court program.

Both bills are pending in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.

Iowa: “is established”

HB 68 and the identical SSB 3085 simply declare “A veterans treatment court is established in each judicial district…” The House version was carried over from 2015. The Senate version had a hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee yesterday (2/10).

Nebraska: requires pilot program

LB 915 establishes “the intent of the Legislature that the Supreme Court establish a three-year pilot project to create a veterans’ treatment court program for any county in which a city of the metropolitan class is located.” Media reports indicate Douglas County would be the pilot county. A hearing on the bill February 5 was held before the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

LB 919, scheduled for that same hearing, would take the state’s existing statutes (24-1301 and 24-1302) authorizing “drug court programs and problem solving court programs” and amend the language to include “drug, veteran’s, mental health, driving under the influence, reentry, and other problem solving court programs”.

New Jersey: requires statewide or local pilot programs

AB 776 requires the creation of a pilot veterans court program in three specific counties (Atlantic, Cape May, and Cumberland). The bill is pending in the Assembly Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

AB 2944 and the identical SB 1189 require the creation of a pilot veterans court program in two judicial districts (called in New Jersey vicinages) one of which must be Burlington County (Vicinage 3). The Assembly version has not been assigned to a committee; the Senate version is that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

SB 307 creates a three-year statewide Veterans Treatment Court Pilot Program. The bill is in the Senate Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

New York: required vs. authorized; transfer to other courts in judicial district

AB 2421 as amended and the identical SB 3914 as amended provide for an alternate treatment program for veterans accused of certain felonies. AB 2421 was approved by the Assembly Codes committee on June 15, 2015. It was sent back to the Codes committee at the start of the 2016 session. SB 3914 remains in the Senate Codes committee.

SB 3141 authorizes the state’s Chief Administrator of the Courts to create a veterans court in any criminal court in the state. The plan allows for criminal charges in lower courts within a county or in another county within a judicial district to be transferred to the veterans court. The plan was approved by the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security, and Military Affairs Committee on May 4, 2015. It was sent back to that committee at the start of the 2016 session.

SB 5677 authorizes the transfer of a criminal action to another criminal court in the same county or an adjoining county that has been designated a veterans treatment court by the chief administrator of the courts. The bill was passed by the full Senate on June 15, 2015 and the Assembly failed to take it up in the 2015 session. It was sent back to the Senate Codes committee at the start of the 2016 session.

SB 6595 also addresses the ability to transfer criminal cases from one court to another court that has a “problem solving court” defined as including a drug court, domestic violence court, youth court, mental health court, and veterans court. The bill is pending in the Senate Codes committee.

Pennsylvania: “shall establish…using available funds”

HB 887 provides the president judge of each common pleas court “shall establish…a veterans and service member court.” It also allows for two or more common pleas courts to operate such a court jointly. The legislation also accounts for the existence of veterans courts already created by court rule, allowing them to continue as they already are. It has been pending in the House Judiciary Committee since February 2015.

SB 517 provides the president judge of each common pleas court “shall establish…a veterans and service member court.” It does not appear to provide for joint operation of a court between two counties. The legislation also accounts for the existence of veterans courts already created by court rule, allowing them to continue as they already are. It has been pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee since February 2015.

Rhode Island: “[District Court] chief judge…shall create”; can’t be used to dismiss charges

HB 5850 and the identical SB 945 creates a 13th judge on the state’s District Court. It provides the chief judge of the District Court “shall create a veterans’ treatment calendar.” Moreover, it specifies that “Under no circumstances shall the defendant(s) be permitted to use this section  as  a  basis  for  a  dismissal  of  an  action,  as  this  section  is  enacted  for  the benefit  and  convenience of the  district court.” Both had committee hearings in 2015 and both were held over for the 2016 session.

Virginia: problem-solving courts in general vs. specific to veterans

HB 96 and the apparently identical SB 26 allow for the establishment of problem-solving courts in general, including veterans courts.

Problem-solving courts are specialized criminal court dockets within the existing structure of Virginia’s court system that enable the judiciary to manage its workload more efficiently. Under the leadership and regular interaction of presiding judges, and through voluntary offender participation, problem-solving courts shall address underlying offender needs and conditions that contribute to criminal behavior. Such needs and conditions shall include, but not be limited to, veteran’s status, mental illness, and societal reentry.

SB 317 copies much of the language from HB 976 and SB 26 but is limited to veterans courts only.

All three bills have been held over until the 2017 session by their respective committees.

West Virginia: “shall establish program” problem-solving courts in general

SB 48 provides the Supreme Court of Appeals shall establish a mental health, veterans and service members court program in the areas of the state with the highest need. Two such courts shall be established by July 1, 2016 with an additional two courts every year for a total of 10 programs by 2020.