Bexar County commissioners approved consolidating magistrate services with the City of San Antonio at their Tuesday meeting. The county is pursuing an eight-month contract with the city that would start on May 1 and end next January.
Magistrate services currently cost Bexar County $713,678 per year, Director of Judicial Services Mike Lozito told commissioners. He added that giving the county magistration responsibilities to the City of San Antonio would save Bexar County $419,223 per year.
The new policy would allow people held in county detention facilities to be processed in person or over video by city magistrate judges. It would also give people better access to public defenders while being processed, Chief Public Defender Michael Young argued Tuesday. He pointed to the recent death of Jack Ule, who died in custody April 18 after he was unable to post bail on his $500 bond. Ule was brought into the intake center at 2:30 a.m. on April 4 on a criminal trespass charge.
“He was processed so quickly by the [county] magistrate that he was on a docket by 3:15 and he was magistrated almost immediately,” Young said. “So neither [the public defender’s office] had an opportunity to talk to him — not mental health services, not pretrial services.”
Judge Nelson Wolff sees the new consolidation of magistrate services as a way to keep low-level offenders out of jail simply because they cannot afford to post bond.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, who campaigned on bail reform, said he advised the “powers that be” to ensure “qualified people” are setting bonds.
“I’m confident that Judge Wolff and the rest of the commissioners made the decision in the best interest of the county, ensuring we have competent review of these cases and appropriate bonds are set,” he said. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to set appropriate bonds.”
Commissioners also requested a formal report on the consolidated magistrate services in a few months. An oversight committee will provide that report, as well as recommendations on how to transfer city operations into the Bexar County Adult Detention Center facility.
County Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4) expressed some apprehension about the commissioners’ decision to stop funding county magistrate judges, and said it could potentially infringe on Texas termination law that states that magistrate judges can be let go after a majority of the appointing judges vote to do so. The 10 Bexar County criminal district judges sent a letter to the commissioners on Monday arguing the ability to select and terminate magistrate judges is under their purview.
“Just as the district courts would not seek to dictate or provide input as to who the county judge should appoint as commissioner, neither does the judiciary expect that the commissioners would provide input to the selection of magistrates,” they wrote.
Wolff said that the county made a budgetary decision to stop funding the magistrates, and they were not being terminated. Calvert answered that he understood there was a lawsuit being threatened against the commissioners.
“I’m trying to avoid the filing of the lawsuit, so when the lawsuit is filed we don’t waste taxpayer money again,” Calvert said.
“Let it be filed,” Wolff retorted.
County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) said he supported the motion not only from a financial perspective, but because it would allow the city and county to work more closely together on magistrate services.
“As a general rule of thumb, it’s always better when the City of San Antonio and Bexar County can work together on something,” he said. “It helps us both out.”
City Council will consider the item on May 2.