Gov. Greg Abbott filled the crucial post of chief justice on the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth Thursday, less than a month after the court’s top judge stepped down for health reasons.
Abbott elevated Justice Bonnie Sudderth, who currently holds Place 4 on the court, to be administrator of one of the state’s busiest appellate benches. Sudderth replaces Terrie Livingston, who retired Sept. 8 citing health setbacks. Her colleagues said Livingston suffered from back problems.
Sudderth will have to seek election to a six-year term in the March Republican Party primary. Her ascension allows Abbott to appoint another justice to the court. Sudderth will be paid $165,500 a year, up from her previous salary of $163,000.
“It is a busy court. We have a lot of new faces and a lot of energy so it’s an exciting time to lead,” said Sudderth, who has served on the court since 2015 after 20 years on a state district court. “I’m thrilled.”
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Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins applauded Abbott’s choice, saying “I think the governor made an outstanding choice.”
Sudderth’s appointment comes at a time when the seven-member court is seeing significant turnover after years of stability.
Fellow Justice Sue Walker has told her colleagues that she will not seek re-election next year and Justice Bill Meier will be forced to step down in 2018 because of a constitutional provision that prohibits a justice from seeking another term after their 75th birthday.
Justices Elizabeth Kerr and Mark Pittman joined the court in January, replacing retiring jurists Lee Ann Dauphinot and Anne Gardner. The other justice on the court is Lee Gabriel, who has served since 2010.
Besides hearing cases and writing opinions, Sudderth will handle the court’s administrative functions such as personnel, budget and legislative issues. In limited circumstances, she will assign cases.
“I think Bonnie will serve the court very well as chief justice,” Walker said. “I’m pleased that Gov. Abbott did not leave the vacancy open for a long time.”
Sudderth takes over a court that has a heavy workload. The appeals court, which handles about 1,000 criminal and civil cases a year, in recent times has transferred about 100 cases to other appellate courts to balance the workload among the state’s jurists. Population growth in its 12-county jurisdiction is credited for the increased workload.
Even before Livingston officially announced her retirement, and Sudderth was picked to take her place, Tarrant County state District Judge Wade Birdwell sent a letter to Abbott in June to be considered for a justice post if one came available.