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Bexar County's newest district judge makes history as he brings justice, order

William "Cruz" Shaw III
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
William "Cruz" Shaw III is believed to be the first elected judge of African American descent.

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One by one, three shackled boys shuffled into a Bexar County juvenile courtroom. They wore dark blue prison outfits and morose faces as they were directed to seats along one side of the room.

Their crimes ranged from being found in a stolen car to aggravated assault. As they passed, not one looked up at the judge who would determine if they stayed in Mission Road Juvenile Detention Center, a five minute walk away.

William “Cruz” Shaw III called the court to order and called up the first of the boys.

“I see mom and dad are here … thanks for being here,” he said to the boy's parents.

These detention hearings — which determine if a youth can be at home before his trial — are fairly automated. The judge calls up the interested parties: the boy, his family or guardian, his attorney, a prosecutor and a juvenile probation worker.

After the alleged crime is read and a recommendation is given by Juvenile Probation, the judge speaks to the young man. He is strict on decorum, correcting a young man who answers with a “yeah” rather than a “yes, sir.”

The associate judge has seen a number of these cases the last four years, and he may have even seen these boys before.

But in just over a month, he will be sworn in as the elected judge promoted over the court he works for now — the 436th District Court.

The election earlier this month brought a first to Bexar County’s courts: Shaw will be the first Black man elected to a state district judgeship in Bexar County.

District courts oversee felony criminal cases, divorces, election cases and any civil matter over $200.

“I didn't even know until one of the other judges told me,” Shaw said in an interview.

The first African American judge elected in Bexar County to a state district court was Carmen Kelsey in 1994.

Stephanie Boyd was elected in 2018 to the 187th criminal district court and won reelection in November.

Jason Pulliam was a county court at law judge who was briefly appointed to a state appellate court but was never elected to it. Pulliam became the first Black person to sit on the federal bench in the Western District of Texas — headquartered in San Antonio — just three years ago.

Despite Bexar County electing its first Black judge to the state district bench this year, San Antonio native Wallace Jefferson served on the Texas Supreme Court from 2001 to 2013 — the first justice and chief justice in Texas history.

Bexar County is 61% Hispanic and 9% Black, according to the U.S. Census. The majority of the kids that go through its juvenile courts like the one Judge Shaw oversees will be people of color. Shaw's father is African American and his mother is Hispanic.

Initially Shaw didn’t think his race mattered in the courtroom, but probation workers started telling him they saw the difference when parents and kids walked in the door.

“I started to see that it,” he said when asked about the importance of representation.

Youth have to look a little deeper for why they are in custody when the judge looks a little more like them.

“They can't say they're out to get me or not, I get it. Okay. And I'm trying, I'll tell them, I'm trying to save your life or keep you out of the prison side. But if you don't want it, what do you want me to do? You know, and having that real conversation with his kids and their families,” he said.

The state Sunset Commission reviews remedies and is expected to chart a course for the beleaguered agency while families and former inmates question its value and what has changed from a decade ago.

Shaw’s predecessor on the bench Lisa Jarret recruited him as an unelected associate judge — taking him from the San Antonio city council at the end of 2018.

“He has a natural ability to bond with the children who we come into contact with every day,” she said via text to TPR.

Shaw’s stern courtroom demeanor correcting kids' grammar stands in contrast to the personable and outgoing one displayed in public — the demeanor that got him elected to the San Antonio city council in 2017. He flips the switch at times to talk to youth before him — seeking to connect on myriad behavioral issues.

“What can I do to keep you out of detention,” he asks a girl who was arrested for a fight while in Child Protective Services’ custody.

“You are a smart young lady. You can do amazing things because I've seen it a couple of times. You gotta control (your anger). It's going to get you in trouble 100% of the time," he said.

Shaw grew up in Houston and says he wasn’t a stranger to getting into trouble — but declines to elaborate. He served as a naval reservist for 8 years and practiced law serving on the city council but before that he also spent time working at Roy Maas youth alternatives, Juvenile probation and other child placements.

Supporters said this gives him additional perspective on the youth he is dealing with.

“Judge Shaw understands, and a deep way in a personal way, a lot of the deeper challenges faced by young people that come into his courtroom very, very much, including those who are young men of color. And so he he can approach those issues with deep empathy, with wisdom and with vision," said Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, CEO of UP Partnership — a nonprofit devoted to helping youth succeed.

Paul Flahive

Through Bexar County Juvenile Probation, which Shaw praised, he can do more, including order services, schedule more court hearings that act has check ins and have one on one sessions. Through specialty courts like Shaw's drug court he can act in some ways like a case manager for youth.

“We try to be more rehabilitative,” he said. “Let's get to the root cause of what's going on. And let's see if we can provide resources…we're all there trying to figure out the best way to keep this kid coming back.”

But there are limitations to what he can do.

With a federal judge calling the state’s foster care system broken and federal prosecutors investigating the Texas’ crisis-riddled juvenile justice system, many of the kids he will be dealing with are coming from or going toward state institutions in disarray…something that Shaw says he recognizes.

Shaw acknowledges he is a part of a system that has to keep moving, and considerations about what happens next for an individual child at times has to take a backseat to the letter of the law.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org