Backlogged jury trials moving at near 'snail's pace' in Bexar County
Ticking through and assigned numbers, Louis Morales locates the name he was searching for on his clipboard.
“Romanek?” he asks.
With an affirmative, he explains people will begin lining up in an hour and until then the Bexar County resident can wait in the nearby cafeteria. Morales is standing outside the Bexar County Central Jury room checking people in for the much maligned and often excuse-laden civic duty.
“I’m here for jury duty,” said another woman walking up saying her last name.
“Do you remember the number you were given?”
“Fifty,” she replied before Morales repeated his instructions. This happens every few minutes.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Thursday and by the time the classroom-like, white-faced analog clock on the wall of the nearby cafeteria reads 9:30 — 80 people should have gone through this check-in process.
The process usually runs like this: An unsure, sometimes sleepy looking Bexar County resident approaches, gives a name then a number and then retreats to a now teaming courthouse cafeteria in the basement of Cadena-Reeves Justice Center downtown.
The process has picked up significantly since they started in-person jury trials again. The process had been shut down through most of the pandemic — but restarted in June only to be shut down again due to the delta variant surge. Morales described a process that while tame — doesn’t allow for much slack.
“Not really. Unfortunately, if one thing goes wrong, those who are in the office… adjust and adapt,” he said.
The resulting backlog numbers more than 30,000 cases waiting for their day in court — or at least for the threat of one. Far from an abstraction, the arrests predicating the criminal cases have also resulted in thousands in jail pre-trial.
Bexar County Adult Detention is mired in 4,400 bodies — according to the sheriff’s department. Due to a series of deck-clearing maneuvers and legislative changes — it is filled with on-the-whole a population that is more violent than at other times.
“Our folks are having to work overtime,” said Sheriff Javier Salazar. “Now we're recruiting like crazy, and we're hiring like crazy. And we're training like crazy.”
Bexar County has approved more than $13 million in overtime this year.
As far as Bexar County Administrative Judge Ron Rangel is concerned, the inability to ramp up jury trials is the single largest reason for overpopulation at the jail.
“We need trials. We need trials. And so COVID has been the biggest enemy as it relates to having trials,” Rangel said.
Because of social distancing and concerns over COVID they are having around half the jury trials compared to what they had pre-pandemic, but now with a massive backlog looming.
John Hunter is the president of the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and describes the pace of jury trials thusly.
“(It's) slightly more expeditious than a snail's pace, but not by much,” he said.
Juries used to be picked in individual courtrooms. During the months it has been open the Central Jury Room has had to do it all. Jury selection will expand to individual courtrooms on a limited basis as early as next week.
Rangel said he has the greenlight from medical authorities to increase the number of juries selected per day but not the staff to execute — not without more money to hire — money not included in the recent $2.8 billion budget passed by the Commissioners Court.
“The impact is we can't move cases,” he said.
Annoyance crept into the normally measured, if not sedate judge’s tone. The annoyance stems from the fact that the need was demonstrated for months and requested in advance of the budget — and finally the sum is pretty small. Yet, it was left out by county budget writers.
Rangel contacted commissioners directly, and along with more money for Children’s Court, more items were to be discussed on Oct. 19 — but was again delayed.
The jury room needs less than $70,000. The money — in a sense — is the court’s already in carryover from the prior year.
In 2020, the court spent roughly $5 million less on indigent criminal defense, according to figures provided by Rangel.
The jury budget had saved 10x what they requested — more than $700,000 was saved on jury pay, summons printing, and postage.
But the money remained out of reach.
“Why not? Right. That makes no sense,” Rangel said.
Commissioner Justin Rodriguez suggested the costs of operating the courts in a pandemic may have shrunk those numbers to nil, but couldn’t say for sure. But he is more interested in getting the jury funding question resolved.
“I think that's the first item to get on and should be, hopefully, on the agenda next week,” he said.
Rodriguez — often seen as the receptive ear to defense attorneys and the courts — called predictions that the backlog could take years to resolve “unacceptable” and is pushing the funding — which he says is now around $100,000 or $30,000 more than was originally requested.
“Part of it’s money, I think part of it is just getting on the same page and how we address that backlog,” Rodriguez said.
With the jury room fully funded, and going at pre-pandemic levels Rangel sees that taking no longer than a year.
“I don't think it'll take longer than that. I've heard estimates it will take longer,” he said.
Sheriff Salazar isn’t as sure, comparing the backlog to a flooded basement.
“Opening up the floor drain isn't going to be enough to empty it out,” he said. “You're gonna have to turn on some sump pumps and really get things moving.”