The Bexar County Courthouse. Image Courtesy of Bexar County

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in an occasional series about the Bexar County justice system. Early voting is now underway through Feb. 28 for the March 4 primary elections, which include a long list of judicial races.

Most people do not think about the structure of their local judiciary – even when they find themselves involved in it. Then, of course, they are concerned about the fair administration of justice. But it is my experience, as a litigant in courts across the country, that structure does matter.

Since I’ve come to practice law in Bexar County, I see inefficiencies in the decades-old presiding court system here that cause unnecessary delays and increase the costs of justice. Some simple changes could make the system more efficient and more in line with its original conception.

In most courts in Texas, a civil case is assigned to a judge after it is filed. The assigned judge will, for the most part, preside over every aspect of that case from the date of filing through trial and post-trial motion practice. This allows a single judge to gain a deep understanding of the case as litigation progresses, and ensures that the judge will have the background knowledge necessary for successful and efficient adjudication when it comes before the court.

The presiding court system in Bexar County is different. It assigns pre-trial hearings among all the available judges. The idea is that by distributing the hearings, these generally minor issues will be disposed of quickly and not cause backlogs for judges and litigants.

But that often means the court to which a case is assigned has no historical understanding of its status outside what are often another judge’s cursory  notes. As a result, hearing time is spent struggling to determine what needs to be adjudicated, the standard to be applied and the burden to be assigned, creating the very inefficiencies the presiding court was meant to ameliorate.

As litigation becomes more complex and the number of cases in Bexar County continues to increase, delays – and their attendant costs, both financially and in the interest of justice – are getting more pronounced.

According to Bexar County’s 2013-14 annual budget, the number of cases disposed of per civil district court per month is expected to rise 10 percent from 2011-12, while the percentage of cases that take 18 months or longer to clear is projected to almost double in the same time period.

One way to reduce those delays and increase efficiency would be to remove more cases from the presiding court system. The local rules for Bexar County already allow for the removal of complex cases at the discretion of the monitoring judge. I would encourage litigants and judges to take greater advantage of this procedure for complex cases. This would allow for a single judge to gain a deeper understanding of these cases, which would allow for more effective adjudication.

The creation of an internship program, allowing law students to clerk for judges, also would help move cases through the system more quickly. As in the federal court system, clerks could assist the court with research issues, draft orders and write summaries of the hearings that the court could use as a reference in future cases. The students would benefit from the training, bolstering their research and writing abilities while obtaining real world experience in Bexar County’s judicial system.

There is one more way the civil district courts could run more efficiently – by issuing a general order that would focus the parties, as well as the court, on the matter to be determined and the law to be applied.

Individual judges have a great deal of control over their own courtrooms, and as such, some are run more efficiently than others. I have pledged, as a candidate for the 45th District, to issue an order that would require all parties to present four items prior to entering the court for a hearing: a statement regarding the issue presented; a statement regarding the standard to be applied; identification of which party bears the initial burden and, if appropriate, the specification of when the burden shifts; and a brief narrative summary of the litigation to date, including previous hearings that impact the current hearing.

These pieces of information are similar to the information required by Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 28(a), which sets forth the requirements of a brief in the federal courts of appeal. Bringing this kind of clarity to civil district courts will help eliminate much of the time spent attempting to hash out those very parameters, and would allow judges to keep the parties on track.

The presiding court system has been in place since 1962; it’s likely here to stay. In 2012, after millions of dollars spent on renovations, the presiding court was moved to its new home on the first floor of the historic Courthouse. And it retains some of the benefits those who put it in place sought, including allowing simple cases that come before the court to be addressed quickly.

I understand a critique of the structure of our local presiding court system will not incite passions like Michael Sohocki’s recent essay, “Why I Closed Lunch at Restaurant Gwendolyn,” which spawned dozens of smart, thoughtful comments here and on Facebook, a respectful rebuttal, and Robert Rivard’s look at how San Antonio might tackle its “ghost building” problem downtown.

So while I certainly don’t expect that kind of outpouring, I do hope to spur a dialogue, and I am eager to hear from others how they think presiding court system could be made more efficient. Because with some thoughtful tweaking, I believe it can – and an efficient, well run judiciary means greater justice for all.

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John Bustamante

John Bustamante is an attorney in San Antonio and Austin. He ran (unsuccessfully, obviously) for judge in the 45th District, and is now enjoying the ability to share his previously undisclosed opinions....