For more than a decade, just two Bexar County courts at law have handled misdemeanor family violence cases.
County officials announced Friday that more than half of the 15 county court judges have agreed to begin hearing such cases to clear a backlog that has worsened since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Since the start of the pandemic, reports of domestic violence have been on the rise worldwide. The effects are being felt locally.
The San Antonio Police Department reported an 18 percent increase in calls relating to family violence in March of this year compared to March 2019, and the Bexar County misdemeanor family violence courts have seen their dockets increase by more than 50 percent this year, according to the Bexar County District Attorney’s Family Violence Dashboard.
With courts and juries unable to convene in person and virtual hearings taking more time, the number of pending cases in the county’s family violence courts has risen from 3,000 to 4,500 since March, said District Attorney Joe Gonzales.
The two judges who currently hear misdemeanor family violence cases are Judge Michael De Leon in Court 7 and Judge Rosie Speedlin Gonzalez in Court 13. Now Judges Alfredo Ximenez (Court 4), John Longoria (Court 5), Mary Roman (Court 8), Tommy Stolhandske (Court 11), Carlo Key (Court 14), and Melissa Vara (Court 15) will be placed in a rotation to help handle the backlog of cases, Gonzales said. Roman has already been handling some of these cases since late last year.
“From here on to the future, as soon as we make those changes to the system, each one of these judges will then take their share of family violence cases,” Gonzales said.
When the misdemeanor family violence courts were created in the 1980s, the volume of cases was significantly lower, Gonzales said. With the increase in cases and the backlog, family violence survivors and those who are accused are facing a very long wait for justice, he noted.
“These cases being assigned to more courts means they will get even more attention by our staff, judges, and eventually juries,” Gonzales said in a prepared statement. “It may also lead to quicker and more successful prosecutions of family violence cases.”
Calling the announcement “one of the most significant changes to the court system in Bexar County,” Gonzales said he is grateful to the judges who are stepping up to adjudicate cases.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said the county has dedicated more funding to aid domestic violence victims.
“We appropriated some $500,000 to the Family Justice Center to help on a number of issues and then we appropriated something like $330,000 with respect to the help [victims] need to get protective orders,” Wolff said.
The Bexar County Commissioners Court also allocated about $900,000 for addressing and prosecuting domestic violence, Wolff added. The district attorney has requested $300,000 to go towards hiring additional prosecutors and prosecution assistants, Wolff said. That will likely be addressed in an upcoming Commissioners Court session, he said.
Gonzalez thanked her fellow judges for stepping up and said each of them also agreed to the extra training that comes with overseeing domestic violence cases. Each of these judges brings with them additional prosecutors to help move the cases along, she said.
“With additional eyes and individuals we hope to level off, if not bring the total number of cases down that can be handled by one court,” Gonzalez said.
De Leon said domestic violence has always been an issue in Bexar County, but the pandemic has worsened the problem.
“Hopefully this solution will turn the tide and [allow us to] do everything we can to bring justice to these victims and our community as a whole,” De Leon said.
Both Roman and Stolhandske have already begun taking on some of these family violence cases, and the others will begin within the next month, said Bexar County Court Administrator Dianne Garcia-Marquez.
As the pandemic continues, Gonzales said he hopes victims of domestic violence know they can reach out to law enforcement officials, friends or family, or anyone who might be able to help.
“If you are a victim of domestic violence, do not feel you have to shelter in place,” he said. “Reach out to someone who can do something about it.