December 11, 2018 admin

Judges are playing musical chairs with their courtroom assignments

Photo: Billy Calzada, Staff / San Antonio Express-News

Bexar County judges are once again playing musical chairs with their courtroom assignments, and at least one county commissioner is tired of paying for the relocation practice.

County and state district court judges are elected to four-year terms. When elections are over, the jurists who kept their seats — and therefore gained new seniority — jockey for the more preferable courtrooms left open by those who retired or were kicked out of office.

At least eight judges have requested a relocation this year, following a midterm wave in which incumbents were re-elected in just 10 of 32 judicial races. Twelve district judges weren’t on the ballot this year.

It costs the county — and taxpayers — between $2,000 and $4,000 to transfer a courtroom, county officials said. If each of the eight judges that have requested a relocation are moved, it would cost the county between $16,000 and $32,000 to accommodate them.

Commissioner Kevin Wolff, the lone Republican on commissioners court, said it’s a “stupid” and unnecessarily costly process. He’s proposing a policy at Tuesday’s meeting that would make courtroom assignments permanent, so the locations don’t get scrambled after elections.

What I’m proposing is we take our courts and essentially designate them, ‘This is County Court-at-Law 4, this is County Court-at-Law 5,’” Wolff said. “If you run for County Court-at-Law 5, this is where your courtroom is.”

Wolff said it’s confusing to the public that the courtrooms change at judges’ will.

I can’t come up with a logical reason other than one judge likes one other courtroom better than the one” he or she is currently in, Wolff said, adding that’s not a good enough reason.

But it’s unclear whether the other four commissioners agree. County Judge Nelson Wolff, who heads the body and is Kevin Wolff’s father, said he has left it up to judges in the past.

“The judges are probably going to want to kick our ass if we do that,” the older Wolff said. “Unless it’s costing us a heck of a lot of money, I’d like to give the judges their prerogative. They’ve always tried to base it on seniority.”

While the $32,000 to accommodate the requests might not seem like a lot of money to an entity with an operating budget of $1.71 billion this year, Kevin Wolff argued it adds up year after year, without adding any benefit to constituents.

As the administrative judge for county courts, County Court-at-Law Judge John A. Longoria gets to decide who moves where. Longoria said Monday he didn’t know the commissioners were taking up the issue, but said he would respect what they decide.

“It doesn’t bother me,” said Longoria, who is a former commissioner himself. “That’s why they’re there. I recognize and respect that.”

Longoria said he has no plans to move his own courtroom, and neither does Wayne Christian, the longest-serving county judge.

Three county judges were given approval to relocate: Incumbent Judge Tommy Stolhandske and incoming county judges Gloria Saldaña and Mary Roman, who had previously served as district judges.

“I personally acknowledged their right to have some show of respect,” Longoria said. “The others are brand new and they’re going to be assigned wherever I choose.”

Article originally published by San Antonio Express-News – Dylan McGuinness