Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What does a county judge in Texas do? Spoiler alert: There is no gavel.

A person talks to someone holding a microphone
Renee Dominguez
KUT News
Andy Brown has been the Travis County Judge since 2020.

When you think of a judge a lot of things probably spring to mind. The slam of a gavel. Long, flowing robes. Maybe one of those folks on The Voice. They come in all shapes and sizes.

There are judges in every county in Texas. But, in every county in Texas, there is only one county judge.

This judge is a vestige of the colonial frontier government that's evolved in different ways in different corners of the state. Most don't preside over court cases like a Supreme Court justice or Judge Judy. And the position is arguably not as high profile as a mayor or governor. But they have a lot of power, so here's a primer on what they do.

What's a county judge's job?

The county judge is pretty much the mayor's counterpart. They facilitate county government the same way a mayor runs city government. They coordinate emergency response in times of trouble. They levy taxes.

They don't have a gavel. Sorry. In larger counties, they don't preside over a court, but they can marry someone.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown has been at the top of the county governmental heap since 2020. He presides over Travis County Commissioners Court meetings most Tuesdays and Thursdays.

He helps craft the county’s budget, which is comparatively smaller than the City of Austin’s. Austin’s city budget was more than $5 billion last year, compared to Travis County’s, which was at $1.3 billion.

And he, along with commissioners, set a property tax rate for the county, like the city does, though the city’s is also higher.

So, the position is pretty similar to a mayor?

Well, no.

The county does have some responsibilities that the city doesn’t necessarily have to deal with. Namely, Judge Brown is kind of a point person for other governments – federal, state and local.

Brown says the pandemic illustrated that. Under state law, he could issue disaster declarations, which allow a jurisdiction to ask for financial assistance or resources or even disaster response.

But the governor also has that power. During COVID, Gov. Greg Abbott's orders superseded Brown's, while Brown's superseded the City of Austin's in that layercake hierarchy, Brown said.

"In COVID, there was this weird interplay between me and the governor where I would order things and [then-Austin] Mayor Adler at the time would order things about trying to keep people healthy and the governor would disagree," he said. "So he actually sued me two times saying I didn't have the power to do the things that I was trying to do. So there's an interesting dynamic.“

Unlike the mayor in Austin, the county judge is a partisan position. Brown is a Democrat, Abbott is a Republican, so there’s a bit of politics to play in the role.

What other responsibilities does this judge have?

Well, the biggest responsibility in Travis County, at least from a budgetary standpoint, is the county jail, Brown said.

“Our jail currently is the single largest line item expense of the county government, and it is also the single largest mental health facility in the county," he said. "Both of which are not great.”

And that’s part of the reason he ran for this position. He wanted to build what’s called a diversion center, a place where people with unmet mental health needs can go, instead of a jail. His effort will require some political wrangling. But it also requires a lot of coordination with federal, state and local governments.

But unlike with COVID, Brown expects the diversion center to be one of the rare issues that unites local Democrats and Republicans controlling the Legislature. Keeping people locked up is costly, Brown said, so reducing the jail population could appeal to the typically budget-conscious GOP.

"It's, again, one of these things that everyone from me to the Texas Legislature ... all agree that this is something we need to do," he said. "And I think we need to build the gold standard of a diversion center here in Travis County because it affects so many things."

Part of that is going to take some marshaling of federal, state and local resources. Bottom line, that's what a county judge does: coordinates resources and helps manage the implementation.

That work is more complicated in some smaller, more rural Texas counties without the tax wealth of larger ones. 

Correction: A previous version of this story said county judges don't preside over courts. In some smaller counties, they do.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Related Content