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More on the motion to dismiss the felony bail lawsuit

Should get a ruling soon.

The bulk of Harris County’s felony judges sought Monday to get the federal case against them dismissed, saying they should not be party to the challenge on how bail is determined for thousands of poor people accused of crime.

Lawyers for Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 Democratic district judges argued at a packed online hearing that the judges are protected by immunity, the federal courts don’t have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees behind the case no longer have standing to sue.

The 2019 civil rights case challenges the county’s policy of setting bond that results in the jailing of people who can’t afford cash bail. Nearly 80 percent of the current jail population are people awaiting trial, mostly on felonies.

Although the group of judges asked for the entire case to be dismissed, or alternatively, their removal as parties to the case, the bail challenge is likely proceed regardless of the court’s ruling, since the remaining defendants — the county, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and four felony judges who hired their own lawyers — are not seeking dismissal.

[…]

The state Attorney General’s Office, arguing on behalf of the majority of the felony judges, said the bail process is constitutional because it adheres to ODonnell v. Harris County, the county’s landmark misdemeanor bond case that was resolved through a seven-year consent decree.

But the plaintiffs say the felony bail case, Russell v. Harris County, raises new constitutional issues that the court never had a chance to address in ODonnell.

See here and here for the most recent updates. I will reiterate what I said in that last link: I want this system to be reformed in a manner similar to the misdemeanor case, I want the Democratic judges to be part of the solution and not an obstacle to it, and I will remember who is who and who does what. We’ll see what happens next.

Yes, bail reform is good

Here’s the first pieces of evidence, from Harris County, to support that.

A new report examining the impact of recent changes to bail practices in Harris County found that releasing more misdemeanor defendants from jail without requiring cash bail did not lead to an increase in arrests for reoffending.

The findings are being cited as a win by criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued that cash-bail requirements unfairly penalize poor defendants who can’t afford release from jail before trial.

Wednesday’s report was the first by independent monitors appointed by a federal judge as part of a settlement order in a lengthy lawsuit that led to changes in the bail system in Texas’ most populous county. The case has been noted by civil rights groups as the first to put America’s cash bail system on trial in federal court.

“This misdemeanor bail reform is working as intended and there are real results,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and independent monitor of the reforms. “Many more people are released promptly, cash bond amounts are vastly reduced except in cases where there will be public safety concerns… [and] there has been no change in reoffending.”

[…]

The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

Not included in the report is data on how often the defendants who were released without payment failed to show up at court hearings. Bail reform opponents across the country have used rises in missed court appearances as ammunition against releasing people on no-cash bonds. The report said appearance rates and reasons for missed hearings will be considered in future reports.

You can read the report for yourself. It’s not the be-all and end-all, as there are still questions about defendants released on PR bonds who would have had to pay bail before versus those who did pay bail, and about rates of showing up in court, but those will be answered in time. The point is, every apocalyptic prediction about murder and mayhem in the streets resulting from jaywalkers and pot smokers not being kept in jail has proven to be spectacularly wrong. Not that this should have been a surprise, since that has been the experience everywhere else this kind of bail reform has been tried, but that didn’t stop the doomsayers. In the meantime, many fewer people were exposed to the risks of being in jail for no good reason. That right there is a whole lot of good. The Chron has more.

Another example of why bail reform is needed

This is troubling in a lot of ways, but fortunately there is a path forward.

Since November, eight defendants fresh out of jail on bond have walked into state District Judge Ramona Franklin’s court and been sent right back to jail.

Instead of standing for a routine court hearing in a first step in their criminal court cases, they ended up back in sheriff’s custody after Franklin revoked their bail and ordered them back behind bars, sometimes with no lawyer present for the defendant.

The process has put Franklin at odds with defense attorneys across Harris County who argue she is engaging in behavior that unfairly penalizes defendants who are presumed innocent — and can cause them to lose thousands of dollars they have scraped together to pay their bail.

Defense attorneys say Franklin revoked their bonds without notice or cause, some of them without legal representation. They argue the process is illegal, in a judicial complaint filed earlier this week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“Many times these people are effectively ambushed,” said Grant Scheiner, with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. “They can’t defend themselves and have no access to counsel.”

[…]

When arrested, suspects usually appear before a magistrate who determines probable cause and a bail amount. After posting bail and being released from custody, they have about a day to appear before a district court judge, where they’re expected to be appointed counsel.

But Thiessen and Scheiner said the defendants complied with the rules of their appearance while Franklin violated procedure, going against the mandate recently issued in an appeals court.

“When the court of appeals hands down the decision telling you not to do something and you proceed contrary to that decision, it just shows a lack of respect for the court of appeals and the Constitution,” Thiessen said.

Franklin has said that she asks attorneys to stand in during those proceedings, the defense lawyers said, but no formal appointment or recording of those stand-in attorneys exists.

Most recently in these initial appearances, Franklin has called some of the defendants to her stand without an attorney present, Thiessen said. A prosecutor reads probable cause findings — the same document and evidence read to a magistrate — and Franklin revokes bond, raises bail amounts and remands the defendant into sheriff’s custody.

“The practice she is engaging in is very unusual,” said Amanda Peters, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston who teaches criminal procedure. “I’ve never seen a judge revoke a bond and then set a higher one if a defendant didn’t violate a condition of bond.”

In some cases, she has ordered defendants who’d posted bond be held without bail, a move defense attorneys say is a clear violation of their clients’ constitutional rights.

State law mandates that judges need to give the defendant “reasonable notice” that they intend to deny bail and allow “meaningful opportunity to be heard.”

Most of the defendants were denied the opportunity for representation before Franklin acted in their cases, using probable cause materials that are often considered inadmissible evidence in trials, Thiessen said.

“Each of these defendants appeared in court and had no notice of what was about to take place,” the defense lawyers said in the complaint. “No notice that Judge Franklin intended to revoke their bonds. No notice that Judge Franklin intended to deny them bail.”

What’s happening here is that the defendants had paid the bond required of them, had shown up in court for their next hearing as they were required to do, had no violations of their bail or other offenses that could cause their bail to be revoked, and yet their bail was either revoked or raised, for no apparent reason. One thing I didn’t realize that this story pointed out is that if you have paid the bond for (say) a $25K bail, and then your bail is subsequently raised to $50K, you don’t get back the amount you paid to the $25K bail so that it can apply to the higher bail. What you paid to the bail bondsman is now gone, and you are starting from scratch to pay the higher bail. Needless to say, lots of people can’t afford this.

I don’t know why Judge Franklin is doing this – she declined to comment for the story – and it’s not clear what can be done about it. What is being alleged here is illegal, but I don’t have a sense for what the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can or will do about it. We have certainly learned over the past few years that just having a law in place for something is not sufficient if there is not an enforcement mechanism in place that brings actual consequences for violating those laws. I hope members of the Legislature, and of Congress, who have criminal justice reform on their priority lists keep this in mind.

I also hope that the ongoing litigation over bail reform for felony defendants brings all of the current abuses of the system to light:

Those probable cause documents were the same materials magistrates used to set the initial bond amounts, meaning no new evidence existed, the complaint alleges. Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin said Texas law requires new evidence is required under a Texas statute that requires “good and sufficient cause” to raise bond. Franklin is just one of several judges who use these practices, he said.

“I think the issue is going to be taken a lot more seriously now,” he said. “Some judges have followed the rules of due process better than others, and I think that’s also coming to light.”

Let’s name names and get it all on the record. It was clear prior to the 2018 election that the Republicans judges (with one honorable exception) were the main impediment to bail reform in the misdemeanor courts. All of the felony court judges are Democrats, and so far only two of them (Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren) have petitioned to join the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. That means that all of the others are at least potentially part of the problem. It’s not too late for any of them to get on the right side of things, but that time will soon come, and it’s going to be on us Democratic primary voters to clean up whatever mess is left. I very much hope that our Democratic judges decide that they want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem, but we need to be prepared to deal with the ones that make a bad choice. Judge Franklin was unopposed in March, and has no Republican opponent. She can’t get a pass like that again.

Finally, for those who show up in the comments here with links to Facebook posts about people who get released on PR bond and then do something horrible: This is a coward’s argument. If you honestly believe that everyone who gets arrested for anything should be kept in jail until they get acquitted by a jury, have the guts to say so. Or if you believe that only people that you personally don’t find to be scary can get released, or if you believe that everyone should have to pay bail of some large minimum amount, say so. Because what you are arguing for, whether you are able to admit it or not, is for lots of people to be kept in jail before they are ever found guilty of anything. If you can’t admit what you’re actually arguing for, then maybe you should keep that argument to yourself.

Felony judges move to dismiss bail lawsuit

Of interest.

A group of district judges in Houston on Thursday argued for dismissal of a lawsuit alleging their felony bail practices are unconstitutional because they discriminate against poor people, keeping them jailed when they can’t pay bail.

Among the defendants are the 23 criminal district judges of Harris County, who argue that the plaintiffs lack standing, and the judges have immunity to the claims. They say the plaintiffs were all released on bail and they don’t have an injury that qualifies them to sue.

[…]

“The felony bail system in Harris County raises the same legal issues as the misdemeanor system, has the same devastating consequences for impoverished arrestees, is similarly coercive of guilty pleas, and is even more costly to the system,” said the second amended complaint in Russell v. Harris County.

The lawsuit argued that Harris County for felony bail must stop using a secured bail schedule to make release decisions and better ensure that detained defendants receive constitutional protections that will protect against “erroneous deprivation of the right to bodily liberty.”

The plaintiffs are all detained in Harris County because they couldn’t afford to pay bail. Their lawsuit seeks an injunction against the county’s felony bail practices. They say the county can’t base release decisions on money alone. It must make factual findings that a person is able to afford the bail, or if they can’t pay, that pretrial detention is necessary because there’s a specific, compelling government interest and there’s no less-restrictive alternative.

The 23 judge-defendants’ motion to dismiss said the plaintiffs in the case were released on bail and they don’t have an injury that would grant them standing to sue the judges. The judges also argue they have immunity, and that an exception to immunity for constitutional violations does not apply, because the plaintiffs haven’t alleged a colorable constitutional claim.

“Plaintiffs’ claims all rest on an alleged fundamental right to pre-trial release, but the Fifth Circuit has already made clear that there is no such right. Consequently, there is no colorable constitutional claim in this suit,” the judges’ motion to dismiss said.

See here for the last update, which is when the judges were added to lawsuit. The story notes both the settlement in the misdemeanor bail lawsuit, which took a dramatic turn following the 2018 election when the Democratic slate won en masse and followed through on a promise to settle this, as well as the fact that two of the felony court judges, Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren, have filed motions in support of the plaintiffs. We’re still very much in the early stages of this litigation.

Because the felony (criminal district) courts are state offices, the felony judges are represented by the AG’s office; the misdemeanor court judges were represented by the County Attorney. It’s unclear to me how much influence Harris County government will have in this lawsuit. County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who favored the misdemeanor settlement, is a named plaintiff in both cases, so whatever influence there is will come via that. As far as I know, he has not yet spoken about this lawsuit.

I want this lawsuit to be settled as well, for the same reasons about equal justice for rich and poor, as well as serious concerns about jailing many non-violent offenders who have not been convicted of anything. It may be that the standing argument has merit – I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know – but that’s not really important to me. What I want is for the system to get a big dose of the reform it badly needs, and along the way I want these judges that I voted for to be part of the solution, not part of the problem like their now-former colleagues on the misdemeanor bench were. I’m willing to see how this plays out, but I need to see that we’re all moving towards a fairer and more equitable system. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind the next time there are primaries.

Move to Collin County on hold, Paxton judge recuses himself

Stay with me here.

Best mugshot ever

The Harris County state district judge who handed Attorney General Ken Paxton a big win by moving his criminal case back to Collin County two weeks ago is now recusing himself because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

Now Judge Robert Johnson’s quick exit is leading the attorneys prosecuting Paxton to question the decision to move the case back to Paxton’s home county.

Johnson, who did not respond to requests for comment, made the venue change decision on June 25. A day later, he and all 22 other Harris County felony judges were added as defendants in a lawsuit alleging that the region’s bail practices discriminate against poor defendants.

The Attorney General’s Office represents state agencies and individual employees of the state and officially became counsel to Johnson and 19 other judges on July 1.

[…]

Prosecutors in the case have appealed the move to Collin County, and the First Court of Appeals on Tuesday granted a motion for a stay of the proceedings during the appeal.

One of the prosecutors, Kent Schaffer, says the recusal raises questions about when Johnson knew he had a potential conflict of interest. He said he plans to look into the issue and will continue to push for the venue change to be voided.

“If we can show that he was already in conversations with the AG about representation, he should have recused himself at that point,” Schaffer said. “If he had a conflict, he shouldn’t have ruled on it to begin with.”

Johnson said in court documents on Monday that he was recusing himself out of a concern that his “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” citing from the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Philip Hilder, an attorney for Paxton, said Tuesday that he has no doubt that Johnson’s decision to move the case should stand.

“The judge’s ruling was completely based in following the law and facts and (he) made the right decision by sending the case back to Collin County,” Hilder said. “He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office.”

Johnson had agreed with Paxton that the judge who moved the case to Harris County in 2017 did so after his term had expired and the decision therefore should not stand.

The case is out of Johnson’s hands for now until the appellate court rules — either upholding the move to Collin County or sending it back to his courtroom.

See here for the background. I agree that the addition of district criminal court judges to the bail reform lawsuit, for which they will be represented by the Attorney General’s office, is a complicating factor, and that it would have been better if Judge Johnson had either ruled or recused himself before that happened. I can’t quite articulate what the conflict of interest may be here, but as a matter of general principle it would be best to separate the two cases. Given the reasons why the case was moved in the first place, maybe moving it to Bexar or Fort Bend or some other large-but-not-Collin county is the better way to go; I’d guess no one was advocating such a position, however. As usual, this case gives me a headache, so I’m just going to leave this here and wait till the First Court of Appeals makes its ruling.

Judges added to felony bail reform lawsuit

This could be a sign that things are about to happen.

All 23 Harris County felony judges have been added as proposed defendants in the lawsuit alleging that the region’s felony bail practices are discriminatory and damaging to poor defendants.

The amended filing came late Friday after a second judge on the court intervened in support of the 2019 civil rights lawsuit arguing that it’s unconstitutional to jail poor people before trial simply because they cannot afford bail. These two judges, Brian Warren and Chuck Silverman, could potentially become both defendants and intervenors.

Several other judges said they looked forward to being formally included in the case in order to make changes to the current protocol.

Lawyers for the indigent people at the jail asked in a motion Friday that nearly two dozen judges be included in the case. They said in court documents that amid rising COVID-19 infections at the jail, the judges have continued to mandate that thousands of arrestees come up with secured money bail without first determining that pretrial detention is necessary or the least-restrictive condition to ensure public safety or cooperation with court hearings.

These judges don’t routinely hold adversarial hearings to allow defendants to make their case about bail and make findings about defendants’ ability to pay bail, the motion said.

Warren, a Democrat who was elected as presiding judge of the 209th Criminal Court, defeating a judge who berated Black Lives Matter, said he supports “intelligent bond reform” in his request to join the case. Silverman, of the 183rd Criminal Court, was accepted as a party in the case Thursday, a day after he filed an unopposed motion to join it.

“The pandemic has brought this into stark relief,” Warren said. He noted that bail has disproportionately affected people of color.

“The implementation of bond reform is a complex issue. It requires well-reasoned and intelligent proposals,” his motion said.

The lawsuit was filed last January, and this is the first real news I’ve heard about it since. The misdemeanor bail reform lawsuit settlement was finalized in November and has been in operation since earlier that year. There are lawsuits in other counties over felony bail practices, such as in Dallas, but so far nothing has come to a courtroom.

A big difference between this lawsuit and the previous one in Harris County over misdemeanor bail practices is that all but one of the judges who were named as defendants in the earlier lawsuit were Republicans, and all but two of them (the one Democrat and one of the Republicans) opposed the plaintiffs’ arguments and refused to settle the suit. It wasn’t until Democrats swept the 2018 election, in part on a message of settling that lawsuit, that it came to its conclusion. In this case, all of the judges are Democrats. As of Friday, when this story was written, at least two of them have expressed a desire to join on the side of the plaintiffs. Brian Warren was mentioned in this story, and on Thursday we got this story about the first judge to speak up, Chuck Silverman.

Saying the bail system “perpetuates inequalities” and can have “devastating” consequences on lives and livelihoods, State District Chuck Silverman of the 183rd Criminal Court filed paperwork Wednesday to intervene in the 2019 federal civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of poor defendants stuck at the jail. In addition, fellow jurist Brian Warren, of the 209th Criminal Court, said he planned to file his own motion to join the case this week, with hopes of reforming the way judges handle with pretrial release.

Silverman said he thinks the majority of his colleagues on the felony bench want to revise how PR bonds work and “want to make the cash bail system obsolete or to make it work better.”

Like his colleagues on the bench, Silverman, a Democrat elected in 2018, is not a party in the lawsuit. He sought to intervene to ensure equal protection and due process rights are fairly administered, while protecting public safety.

Silverman said in an interview that negotiations on the bail lawsuit had been moving slowly and he learned in his civil practice prior to becoming a judge that the best way to push it forward and accomplish true bail reform was to intervene.

“We need systemic change in the cash bail system because it disproportionately affects minorities and the poor,” he said. “The time to do something proactive was now.”

The unopposed motion argues that cash bail discriminates against people who can’t access funds, often forcing them to settle for guilty pleas rather than await trial in lockup.

Neal Manne, one of the lawyers for the indigent plaintiffs, applauded Silverman’s “courageous” move and encouraged other judges to follow his lead.

“Any state judge looking in good faith at the cash bail situation in the felony courts in Harris County can see that the system is broken and requires reform,” Manne said. “I am delighted that Judge Silverman has acknowledged that the current situation violates the rights of poor people.”

I too would like to see all of the judges join with the plaintiffs to work towards a fair and equitable solution as quickly as possible. The way COVID-19 has burned through all the jails in the state, as well as the ever-increasing jail population, should make this an urgent priority, from a public health standpoint as well as a justice standpoint. I hope that most if not all of the judges will take similar action as Silverman and Warren have done, and I am damn sure that those who don’t will need to account for their actions in the next primary election. We know what is right, and we know what needs to be done. There’s plenty of room to negotiate the details and particulars, but the goal is clear and we need to get there. Let’s make this happen.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

DA dismisses charges against most protesters

Good.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office on Tuesday dismissed almost 800 cases filed against protesters arrested during the George Floyd demonstrations last week in Houston.

In total, prosecutors dropped 796 charges filed against 654 protesters, District Attorney Kim Ogg said. Many of those cases were cited in court filings as being dismissed “in the interest of justice.”

Charges still remain against 51 adults and one juvenile accused of 35 misdemeanors and 19 felonies, Ogg said. Those include weapons offenses and charges of aggravated assault of a peace officer.

Prosecutors made their decisions by looking at “people who sought to do harm (to) others and property vs. those arrested for simple civil disobedience,” according to a news release.

“The job of the prosecutor is to seek individualized justice in every case,” Ogg said. “While probable cause existed for the arrests of those people who refused to disperse after being ordered to do so by police, our young prosecutors worked hard to identify the few offenders who came to inflict harm on others and intentional damage to property.”

The dismissed cases were nonviolent misdemeanors, mostly obstructing a highway and trespassing.

[…]

Monique Sparks, of the Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, commended the DA’s office for dismissing some charges. She said her group, which is representing protesters for free, is now focused on expunging charges from their clients’ records.

“What it shows is that our DA’s office is on board with what the Constitution says,” Sparks said. “We think this is a good start.”

The protesters will be informed of avenues to take if they want to file civil lawsuits, Sparks said. The district attorney’s office will work to help expunge the cases from the protesters’ records, although they might need representation to do so, Ogg said.

They might also need cash to do that. As Sarah Wood, policy director at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, noted in the story, an expunction can cost hundreds of dollars in fees, including attorney’s fees. It would have been much better all around if these folks had been not arrested in the first place. Which, again, is a big part of the point that the protesters have been trying to make – far too much police activity is geared towards behavior that doesn’t actually threaten public safety, but does put a lot of ordinary people into the criminal justice system, and all of the harm that brings with it. Consider how many of these protesters might be in jail right now and for who knows how much longer if the DA had been willing to press charges and if Harris County was still requiring cash bail for even the most low-level offenses. And then consider the risk they would be in from COVID-19 in that scenario. We made significant progress on bail, but most of the problem is upstream from there. We can, we should, we must change this.

Commissioners Court to address police reform

On the agenda for today.

Ten police and criminal justice reform items appear on Tuesday’s agenda; seven by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, two by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and one by Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. They would:

  •  Examine whether to create an independent county civilian oversight board, with the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses, to investigate claims against police, including use-of-force complaints
  •  Order the creation of a universal use-of-force policy for all county law enforcement agencies, to include de-escalation techniques and alternatives to violence
  •  Determine how to engage the community in budget evaluations for all the county’s criminal justice departments;
  •  Create a public website with monthly use-of-force reports, including video footage, submitted by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and constables’ offices
  •  Determine the feasibility of creating a new emergency responder program to handle some responsibilities that currently fall to police, such as mental health and substance abuse crises
  •  Study whether to create a new county agency to run “violence interruption programs” to end cycles of violence in communities
  •  Determine how to expand alternative, non-punitive intervention techniques to address issues including poverty, homelessness and substance abuse
  •  Study the effect on poor arrestees of cash bail, criminal fines, fees and penalties
  •  Order a bi-annual report on current racial disparities in the justice system with recommendations on how to eliminate them
  •  Make improvements to the indigent defense system

Ellis, who has cited criminal justice laws as among his proudest achievements during his 26-year career in the Texas Senate, said in an email to constituents on Thursday that reforming law enforcement must extend beyond addressing police brutality.

“We must re-imagine what justice means, and open our eyes to the ways that the justice system intersects with racism, classism, and other societal inequities, and chart a new path predicated on community well-being,” Ellis wrote.

As noted, Commissioners Court has less power to affect policing in Harris County than Mayor Turner and City Council do in Houston because Sheriff Gonzalez and the Constables are all elected officials themselves. They do have the power of the purse, however, and can threaten to make budget cuts as needed to effect reforms. More transparency and a CAHOOTS-like program as proposed by CM Letitia Plummer both seem like strong ideas that can have a quick impact, and an oversight board with subpoena power is also needed. Now get some community input and start implementing these plans.

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

Judges have to do their part

Some could be doing better.

Harris County’s largest association of criminal defense attorneys on Monday called on local judges to halt in-person court appearances to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

As the virus has swept across the nation, it has shut down wide swaths of everyday life. But in Harris County — where judges last month halted jury trials and many other court functions — some criminal judges have continued to require in-person court hearings and in-person reporting to pre-trial services.

Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association President Neal A. Davis wrote that such policies present a “threat to public safety and the impartial administration of justice.”

In the four-page letter — which was sent to the county’s 22 state district judges and 16 misdemeanor judges, Davis noted that video appearances are “easy and routine now,” and that local prosecutors are expressly forbidden from appearing in courtrooms, except in “the rarest of occasions.”

“For a Harris County Judge to require one party to physically appear and risk exposure to a deadly pathogen, and allow the other party to appear remotely, violates a judge’s appearance of impartiality, at a minimum,” Davis wrote.

[…]

Local defense attorney Patrick McCann said that while many misdemeanor judges were taking measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, some district judges “have not thought through the implications of everything they’ve been asking the defense bar to do.”

“I’m glad the HCCLA is finally standing up for the average solo (attorney) that’s trying to keep safe, keep their family safe and still do a good job for their clients,” he said.

This is one of those things that should have gone without saying, but clearly we need to say it. It’s clearly unfair to have different rules for each side, and when those different rules put some people’s lives at risk, there’s really no excuse. The story does not indicate which judges are the offenders here, but I’m sure the names are known. All I can say is that the next time these judges come up for election, I would very much like to know who was doing the right thing and who was not. I hope that the various endorsing organizations will take that into account, and more to the point be as transparent as they can about it. I know that most people who vote in judicial elections don’t know a whole lot about the candidates in question. That doesn’t mean the information that is relevant to us shouldn’t be available. Please make sure that it is.

Abbott’s stay-in-jail order blocked and then unblocked

This was Friday.

A state district judge in Travis County has temporarily blocked enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to limit jail releases during the new coronavirus pandemic. She cited unconstitutional provisions and overreach of executive power in the gubernatorial order.

State District Judge Lora Livingston issued her ruling Friday night after a lawsuit this week challenged the governor’s order that prohibited judges from releasing some inmates without paying bail. Abbott’s order was prompted by some local officials moving to reduce the number of people locked up in disease-prone county jails. He said “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.”

Abbott’s order banned the release of jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime on no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas argued in their lawsuit filed Wednesday that Abbott’s order violates the constitutional separation of powers and keeps only poor defendants in jails. The plaintiffs, represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project, asked the court to declare Abbott’s order unconstitutional and an overreach of his power.

[…]

In a virtual hearing Friday, Livingston repeatedly questioned how the governor’s order affected public safety and whether he could make a widespread decision to take away judges’ authority to individually assess defendants.

“I’m just trying to understand how this order without regard to any particular specific information about a case can blanketly decide that a personal bond is not necessary or appropriate or required in a particular situation,” she said. “I’m troubled by the sort of blanket nature of that order in the same way that apparently the governor was concerned about a blanket order from judges that hasn’t yet happened but could theoretically be entered.”

[…]

“What confusion is solved by the governor taking action in this way when in my mind, and apparently in the mind of the Harris County district judges, there’s no confusion at all?” she asked Biggs. “I think the judges do what they do and that Harris County order seemed to bear that out: This is what judges do everyday and we will handle it, thank you very much.”

She later added that the county judge can’t tell local judges how to make decisions. “That’s not how separation of powers works; that’s not how reality works.”

See here for the previous update. Judge Livingston more or less addressed the question I had raised, which is that given how the judges in Harris County had already said they were going to operate, what was Abbott’s order even doing? This ruling was to in effect until April 24, at which time there will be another hearing. But then the Supreme Court stepped in:

The Texas Supreme Court has revived Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, the high court stayed a state district judge’s ruling from Friday night that blocked Abbott’s order. The district judge cited unconstitutional provisions and an overreach of executive power in her temporary order against Abbott. The Supreme Court’s order is also temporary, with responses due to the court Monday evening.

The legal battle stems from an Abbott order issued last month during the state disaster. The governor’s order prohibits judges from releasing jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime without paying bail — banning no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes and with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

A copy of Judge Livingston’s ruling is here. I would refer you to the Grits for Breakfast analysis of why the plaintiffs should win on the merits, which now we have to hope that the Supreme Court is able to recognize as well. The Chron has more.

Another lawsuit filed over Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

There’s no slowdown in the litigation business, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the new coronavirus pandemic is facing a second court challenge arguing his order violates the constitutional separation of powers and discriminates against poor criminal defendants.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas sued Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton Wednesday in Travis County district court. The plaintiffs are represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Last month, Abbott issued an executive order that suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes without paying bail. The order largely banned judges across the state from releasing such defendants on no-cost, personal bonds, which can include conditions like drug testing and regular check-ins. The attorney general’s office has said no-cost release could be considered for individuals based on health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, which some attorneys said takes weeks.

But, under Abbott’s order, people accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still quickly be released from jail if they had access to cash. The lawsuit argues Abbott’s order ignores constitutionally-mandated separation of powers by taking away judges’ discretion. It also states the system put in place under the order creates an unconstitutional wealth-based system, similar to those that federal courts have slammed in Texas counties.

“The harms of this order are not abstract: poor people are being detained pretrial with no way to escape a possible jail outbreak,” said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The governor has overstepped his legal authority, and this is causing significant harm on the ground.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the lawsuit is here and the full statement from the ACLU is here. I get that this lawsuit is over the authority Abbott has to suspend various criminal laws, but it’s a little unclear to me what the actual stakes are. The misdemeanor court judges, who are plaintiffs in this suit, have already said they will continue to abide by the bail lawsuit agreement, while the felony court judges are doing their own thing. I guess we’ll find out when we start having hearings. If you’re a lawyer and want to help clarify this for me, please do. Grits has more.

Another obstacle to releasing inmates

One step forward, one step back.

As fear and COVID-19 crept though the Harris County Jail, felony judges halted the release of low-risk inmates on Friday, blocking the county chief executive’s order to free them to await trial.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez discontinued the releases Friday after District Judge Herb Ritchie voided the order to free inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. People had begun to be released from the jail Thursday night and Friday morning under Judge Lina Hidalgo’s decision from earlier in the week, but only a handful walked free before Ritchie put the hammer down.

Public health experts have warned that the cramped conditions at the jail mean any significant outbreak could spread “like wildfire” among the jail population, spreading to staff and the wider community. Five people who work at the jail and three inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 800 more inmates quarantined. The sheriff has been calling for releases for weeks to avert a contagion that could ravage the jail and overload the region’s health care system.

[…]

Hidalgo earlier this week ordered Gonzalez to prepare a list of inmates accused of certain nonviolent offenses and who did not have previous convictions for violent crimes. That list was being reviewed and pared down by other county departments.

On Friday afternoon Ritchie, who supervises the felony judges, issued an “Order to Disregard Directive by Harris County Judge.” He ordered the sheriff to “ignore and wholly disregard” Hidalgo’s directive to arrange for the release of inmates. Ritchie’s order said that each violation “may result in criminal contempt of court penalties, which may include up to six months’ confinement in jail, as well as a possible fine not to exceed $500.00.”

Hidalgo said, “We are reviewing the order and hoping for a swift resolution because the health of every Harris County resident is at stake.”

Michael Fleming, former Harris County Attorney, said Ritchie has a very strong argument on constitutional grounds. “It’s not a frivolous thing that he did,” Fleming said. “A district judge under the Texas Constitution has supervisory control.”

It’s a thorny legal issue, according to Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at University of Houston. “The judiciary almost always has precedence in matters involving release from incarceration,” he said, but noted: “In times of crisis, discretionary powers to protect public safety have a way of finding priority, so a higher court may agree that the county judge has jurisdiction in an emergency.”

The effort to secure inmate releases has crawled along for weeks, impeded by squabbling among the county departments involved, disagreements about who should qualify for release, threats from the state Attorney General and social media potshots from Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and others warning of dire consequences should people be freed from jail. For all the effort that went into Hidalgo’s order, it appeared Friday that only a handful would end up being released under its terms.

The sheriff sought to prioritize 125 people whose health would be especially compromised if they were exposed to the virus. The district attorney objected to all but 14 of those people, who had all been released as of late Friday morning. According to an estimate by the sheriff’s lawyer, only 150 to 200 on the list of 1,470 people would have gone free.

The Hidalgo order excluded anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or temporary restraining orders. The inmates released on Thursday night and Friday include people charged with drug possession, unauthorized use of a vehicle, evading arrest, interfering with the duties of a public servant, theft, fraud, and tampering with a government record. But the vast majority on the sheriff’s list were being stricken.

See here and here for the background. Boy, you really have to watch out for those document-tamperers. They will straight-up kill you if you look at them funny. Kidding aside, I sure don’t know if Judge Ritchie is correct that county judges don’t have the authority to order the release of inmates who have been held on bond. There’s likely little to no precedent, and there are good arguments to be made either way. (Former CCA Justice Elsa Alcala has some interesting discussion of this on her Twitter feed.) Individual judges can certainly change bond conditions as they see fit, and eventually we will get this sorted out either through the courts or subsequent legislation. The point, though, is that this is an emergency situation, and every day increases the risk and the infection rate, which is exactly what Judge Hidalgo was trying to mitigate. This is just another way in which we as a society were totally unprepared for this kind of problem. We damn well better learn from it for the next time.

The state of inmate releases

Harris County judges are going to follow the federal bail lawsuit settlement agreement and not Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order. Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.

And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.

Instead of following Abbott’s recent executive order, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.

[…]

Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.

“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”

A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.

See here for the background. It’s still not clear to me what Abbott intended with this order and what if anything he’ll do in response to the courts’ actions. We do know what the plaintiffs in that bail lawsuit are doing, however.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some Texas jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic is being challenged in federal court. Civil rights attorneys filed a court motion Wednesday arguing the order unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and also takes away judges’ power to make individual release decisions.

[…]

On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.

“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention — but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.

Abbott said Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked for days on the order to ensure it met “constitutional muster.” His order “doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to questions about the court challenge Wednesday.

My guess is that Judge Rosenthal will not be impressed by Abbott’s order, but I expect we’ll know soon enough.

And then there’s this.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Wednesday directing the Harris County Jail to release some low-risk inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

It could take up to 32 hours for the relevant agencies to weigh in and allow eligible people to leave the downtown campus of the third largest jail in the country.

The order by Hidalgo — more than two weeks in the making — calls on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to assemble a list of people accused of nonviolent offenses with no violent prior convictions. Murray Fogler, a lawyer for Gonzalez, estimated this initial list could include 1,000 to 1,200 people who fit the criteria.

The order cites the grave risk the disease poses to both the jail population and the whole Houston area.

“Without significant reductions in the current population, the lack of physical space, supplies, and staff to control an infectious outbreak in the Harris County Jail system is likely to spread to the greater Harris County region,” the order says. “These detainees spend significant time in communal spaces, including dormitories, eating areas, recreation rooms, bathrooms, and cells or holding areas, and are unable to choose to do otherwise. Further, detainees live in spaces with open toilets within a few feet from their beds, and unable to access a closed toilet that would not aerosolize bodily fluids into their living spaces.”

The order excludes anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or any pending temporary restraining orders.

See here and here for the background. The order, which is embedded in the Chron story, also takes into account inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail is going to be a huge vector for the virus, and the only thing we can do about it is to minimize the number of people who could be affected by it. Again, I wonder what if any resistance we’re going to get from the state.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

Meet your bail reform overseers

They’re where the buck will stop.

A federal judge Tuesday approved the choice of a Duke University law professor to oversee Harris County’s historic bail reform agreement that governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Brandon L. Garrett, from Duke’s Center for Science and Justice, to serve as monitor for implementation of the seven-year consent decree. The judge also approved Sandra Guerra Thompson, a former New York prosecutor who teaches at University of Houston Law Center, as deputy monitor for the settlement.

[…]

Garrett has a background in criminal justice, policy-making and reform, according to a biography on Duke’s website. His research and teaching has focused on criminal justice outcomes, evidence and constitutional rights. He has also studied DNA exoneration, eyewitness identification and corporate crime.

Guerra Thompson, a native of Laredo, is an award-winning professor who directs the university’s Criminal Justice Institute for the UH law program, according to the UH website. Her scholarly work includes articles on wrongful convictions, eyewitness identification, forensic science, civil asset forfeiture, federal sentencing, discrimination in jury selection, prosecutorial ethics, police interrogations and immigration-related crimes.

She has played a key role in the transition to office for Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2016 and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2017. She was a founding board member for the Houston Forensic Science Center and was tapped in 2009 by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

Sounds like two good people for the job. It’s not totally clear to me what exactly their responsibilities will be, but I assume if things are not going the way they should, we’ll hear about it from them.

Endorsement watch: For Menefee

We have our first major endorsement against an incumbent as the Chron recommends Christian Menefee for County Attorney over Vince Ryan.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s decision to spend millions of dollars and waste precious legal resources to prolong the defense of an unconstitutional bail system raises serious questions about his judgment.

That Ryan still contends that the bail process was constitutional demands change.

This is a large part of why we recommend civil litigation attorney Christian Menefee in the March 3 Democratic primary for the job Ryan has held since 2008.

We were also impressed by promises made by Menefee, 31, to bring added energy and fresh perspective to the part of the job that goes beyond serving as a lawyer to county officials and judges. The county attorney also is responsible for using civil enforcement to protect neighborhoods, clean up the environment and shut down illegal enterprises.

“We need a relentless advocate who’s going to fight for the people of Harris County, all the people,” Menefee said in an interview with the Chronicle Editorial Board.

[…]

“I have great respect for Judge Rosenthal, but her finding of an unconstitutional system was, quite frankly, not something we agreed with,” Ryan told the Editorial Board, a stand that puts him in conflict with the courts and a growing body of legal reformers locally and across the country.

My interview with Vince Ryan is here, my interview with Christian Menefee is here, and my interview with Ben Rose is here. The Chron did endorse some challengers in judicial races, but this is a more significant decision. I’ve been saying for a long time that the bail lawsuit was going to be the main factor in this race, and however you feel about Vince Ryan – as I have said, I think he has been a pretty darned good County Attorney overall – Ryan has had to answer for this, and his answers have not been great. I don’t understand why the Chron didn’t stick to their position of strong support for bail reform in the primary between Judge George Powell and challenger Natalia Cornelio, but they are being consistent here. Again, I don’t know what the effect of the expected high turnout for the primary will be. I do expect that this issue has resonated with the Democratic electorate, but I don’t know how deep that goes.

The Observer overviews the DA primary

You’ve had a chance to listen to my interviews with DA candidates, now read this story for more on this important primary.

Kim Ogg

When Kim Ogg first ran for Harris County district attorney, she had a simple pitch for criminal justice reform: stop jailing people for petty pot possession. The position, novel to Houston politics in 2014, proved so popular that even her Republican opponent embraced a version of it. Ogg lost that first race, but she tried again in 2016, this time adding bail reform and a promise to create “a system that doesn’t oppress the poor” to her platform. She beat the incumbent by 8 percentage points to become Harris County’s first Democratic DA in 40 years.

Ogg was among the first wave of reform-minded “progressive prosecutors” elected across the country in recent years. This new class rejected a tough-on-crime ethos, advocating instead for fairness and jailing fewer people. Ogg quickly declared herself “part of the national reform movement” and started dismissing low-level marijuana charges for people who took a class and paid a fine. She also rejected so-called “trace cases” involving miniscule drug amounts and called for diversion instead of jail for small-time offenders. 

Over the course of her first term, however, progressives have soured on Ogg. While she publicly supported bail reform, she continued to seek high bail for people charged with minor offenses. She further disappointed them by objecting to historic bail reforms that followed a years-long lawsuit to end the practice of keeping low-level offenders in jail simply because they’re poor. Progressives have also bristled at Ogg’s repeated attempts to expand her office.

Now at the end of her first term, Ogg feels squeezed between opposing forces: a police union that accuses her of being soft on crime and critics on the left who say she’s failed to live up to her reputation. She’s facing a combative Democratic primary next month, flanked by challengers who insist that she’s stood in the way of progress during her first term. A Democratic sweep in the midterms that turned Harris County solid blue further emboldened local organizers who are seeking a new kind of reform prosecutor. 

While Ogg credits herself with boosting diversion programs and reducing prison sentences during her first term, her critics insist more fundamental changes are needed to fix yawning racial inequalities in the local justice system and to decarcerate one of the largest jails in the country. There was palpable tension between Ogg and the forces that helped elect her at a ACLU of Texas candidate forum in downtown Houston last Thursday. Some people in the standing-room-only crowd jeered as Ogg urged them to stick with her “balanced approach” to reform. After the forum, a woman walked up to Ogg and began arguing with her before campaign staffers quickly intervened.

In a phone call this week, Ogg sounded aggrieved and unappreciated, the way incumbents often do during tough re-election fights. “I started running before people in our local political arena even knew what a district attorney did,” she said. “Everything I wanted to do was a reformation of decades of static prosecutorial policy in Harris County. So of course I’m a reformer, and to be labeled otherwise—that’s a political issue more than a factual one.”

Ogg’s primary is one of several prosecutor races in Texas this year that could redefine the bounds of criminal justice reform in the state. As state lawmakers fail to make meaningful progress each legislative session, advocates for change have increasingly focused on amplifying key district attorney, judge, and sheriff races to transform how their communities are policed and prosecuted.

The article touches on the race in Travis County as well, where incumbent Margaret Moore is under similar fire. I have no idea what will happen in these races – they’re as prominent as any local election, but it’s hard to say how much of that breaks through in the non-stop fusillade of national political news – but they will have a significant effect in Harris and Travis Counties. A side issue I’ve been pondering, which I asked Audia Jones about when I spoke to her, is whether the Legislature (especially but not exclusively if it remains in Republican hands) will step in and try to impose some limits on what prosecutors can and can’t do. I can very easily see this as a red meat law-and-order issue for Dan Patrick (and, whenever someone wakes him up and reminds him that he’s Governor, Greg Abbott) in the 2021 session. I have no idea what they may try to do, but I’m sure their imagination won’t be so limited. Just something to keep in mind.

Endorsement watch: The judges

After a couple of Republican endorsements, the Chron gives us a slate of judicial candidates for the Democratic primary in the district courts. A brief summary:

Singhal in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

We recommend Dinesh Singhal, 52, who has tried more than 25 cases and handled 19 appeals.

Hootman in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

We recommend Tim Hootman, 57, an experienced appellate lawyer who is known for having an atypical legal approach.

Robinson in Democratic primary for chief of the 14th Court of Appeals

We recommend Jane Robinson, 46, who is board certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Kronzer in Democratic primary for 14th Court of Appeals Place 7

We recommend Wally Kronzer, 65, who has extensive appellate court experience in state and federal courts.

Weiman in Democratic primary for 80th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Larry Weiman, 64, who has been on this bench since 2008.

Harvey in the Democratic primary for the 164th Harris County District Court

We recommend Grant J. Harvey, 55, who is a highly regarded litigator who has participated in numerous trials and appeals.

Daic in the Democratic primary for the 165th Harris County District Court

We recommend Megan Daic, 34, for a court that needs a more efficient and decisive judge.

Acklin in the Democratic Primary for the 176th Harris County District Court

We recommend Bryan Acklin, 34, who is a former prosecutor and is now a criminal defense attorney.

Martinez in the Democratic Primary for the 179th Harris County District Court

We recommend Ana Martinez, 39, who gained a sterling reputation as a human trafficking prosecutor before she became a defense attorney.

Moore in the Democratic Primary for the 333th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Daryl Moore, 58, who may be the most respected incumbent running in Harris County.

Kirkland in the Democratic Primary for the 334th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Steven Kirkland, 59, who has been on this bench since 2016 and served on another civil bench and a municipal bench before that.

Gaido in the Democratic Primary for the 337th Harris County District Court

We recommend Colleen Gaido, 39, who is a respected former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney.

Bell in the Democratic Primary for the 339TH Harris County District Courts

We recommend Te’iva Bell, 39, who has served in the felony courts from three perspectives – as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney and a public defender. H

Powell in the Democratic Primary for the 351th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent George Powell, 54, who was elected to this bench in 2016.

Phillips in the Democratic Primary for the 507th Harris County District Court

We recommend C.C. “Sonny” Phillips, 59, who has been practicing family law, and occasionally appellate law, for 34 years.

They did actually say more about the candidates they recommend, and they noted who else was on the ballot. Go read all that for yourself. As noted, Weiman, Moore, Kirkland, and Powell are incumbents, while Harvey (Alex Smoots-Thomas), Daic (Ursula Hall), Acklin (Nikita Harmon), Martinez (Randy Roll), and Phillips (Julia Maldonado) are running against incumbents. Here are the Q&A’s I’ve run from candidates in these races:

Tim Hootman, 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Jane Robinson, Chief Justice, 14th Court of Appeals
Wally Kronzer, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Grant Harvey, 164th Civil Court
Megan Daic, 165th Civil Court
Bryan Acklin, 176th Criminal Court
Ana Martinez, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Steven Kirkland, 334th Civil Court

Q&A’s from candidates not endorsed by the Chron:

Tamika Craft, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. “Velda” Faulkner, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Cheryl Elliott Thornton, 164th Civil Court
Jimmie Brown, 165th Civil Court
Judge Randy Roll, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Julia Maldonado, 507th Family Court
Robert Morales, 507th Family Court

Q&A responses from Natalia Cornelio (351st Criminal Court) and Cheri Thomas (14th Court of Appeals, Place 7) are in the queue and will be published in the next couple of days. The Chron will do endorsements for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals separately, and will not be endorsing in the County Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable races. That’s one way to get through this long list of candidates and races in a (mostly) timely fashion.

One last thing: As is often the case with these judicial endorsements, I agree with some and not so much with others. The one that surprises me is the endorsement of Judge Powell. After the big deal the Chron made about not endorsing any judge or judicial candidate who didn’t support bail reform in 2018, it’s a bit jarring to see no mention at all of that subject in this context.

Endorsement watch: Ed again

This is an easy call.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

[Sheriff Ed] Gonzalez, 50, a soft-spoken Houston native, former councilman and 18-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, ran as a reformer and he hasn’t disappointed in his first term. From taking a bold stance in support of bail reform to minimizing the use of solitary confinement to expanding vocational programs to women in the jail, changes big and small have prioritized public safety as well as fairness and the dignity of inmates.

To address the opioid crisis, Gonzalez made the Harris County jail the first in Texas to offer Vivitrol, a drug that helps curb cravings and prevent relapses. In October, the jail began equipping departing inmates grant-funded supplies of the drug naloxone, which can save lives by reversing overdoses.

Certainly, bringing a jail of 8,500 inmates that was under two consent decrees when he took office into full compliance with state standards was no easy task. The sheriff has struggled at times to address vexing problems such as jail suicides, of which there were five in a span of two years. With new protocols in place, however, there have been none in the last year, a trend we hope continues.

[…]

Gonzalez’s track record and his drive to continue reform have earned our recommendation for sheriff in the Democratic primary.

They mention the recent cite and release policy as another reform effort Gonzalez has initiated. I think Sheriff Gonzalez has had a pretty darned solid first term, and he did not draw serious opposition. Like I said, this is an easy call.

Cite and release

This has been a long time coming.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County law enforcement officials on Tuesday will begin a “cite and release” program that treats some misdemeanor charges like court citations for speeding tickets, just days after the district attorney’s office said it could not fully comply with the initiative.

The program, which applies to six charges handled in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, comes amid countywide discussions about bail reform and over-incarceration, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s repeated requests that Harris County Commissioners Court fund more prosecutors for her office.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is the first policing agency in the area that is reported to be participating in the program approved by a working group that includes judges. After voicing concerns in a letter to the sheriff, Ogg’s office agreed to the new procedures.

Ogg’s office sent the Chronicle a copy of the letter but declined further comment.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez noted that Harris County is behind the curve on using cite and release, as other Texas counties began employing it after the state Legislature in 2007 authorized such programs. The hope is that fewer bookings will allow deputies to have more time to patrol neighborhoods, while people who are eligible can stay with their families and keep going to work, he said.

“This administrative policy should help reduce our pre-trial county jail population and provide local costs savings to taxpayers,” the sheriff said. “Citations can divert lower risk individuals from detention, reserving limited space and resources for more dangerous individuals.”

The class A and B misdemeanor charges that apply are criminal mischief, $100-$750; graffiti, $100-$2,500; theft, $100-$750; theft of service $100-$750; contraband in a correctional facility; and driving while license invalid.

If a resident is stopped on one of those offenses, the sheriff’s office will run a check for active warrants and contact the district attorney’s office to see if the person is eligible for cite and release, according to an internal memo about the procedures.

Once prosecutors accept the charges, the deputy completes the citation as long as it’s signed off by the defendant. The suspect is given a court date on the spot and then released.

These are exactly the types of defendants who would be at the top of the list for a personal recognizance bond, so it makes sense to treat them this way. I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a long time, including with HPD, but it just hasn’t happened before now. As the story notes it’s happened as a direct result of the 2018 election, as the Democratic misdemeanor court judges were a driving force behind it. This is the moment, and it’s clearly the way to go. And now that the Sheriff’s office has adopted this policy, maybe HPD will follow.

Chron overview of Commissioners Court Precinct 1

As with endorsement editorials, they’re going to need to write a lot of these in the next couple of weeks.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Few Harris County politicians — of any party — are eager to challenge Rodney Ellis, the widely known, well-funded, well-connected Precinct 1 commissioner. Former state district judge Maria T. Jackson says she is up to the task.

The Democratic primary in March will all but crown the winner in November’s general election, as the Republican Party has put forth no candidates in the heavily Democratic precinct, which includes Sunnyside, Downtown, Midtown, Montrose, The Heights, Acres Homes, Greenspoint, Kashmere Gardens and parts of northeast Harris County.

Ellis casts himself as a champion of progressive causes, citing his work reforming Harris County’s bail system, raising the minimum wage for county contractors and ensuring that funds from the landmark $2.5 billion flood bond benefit rich and poor neighborhoods equally.

“During my four years on Commissioners Court, I think I’ve had the same energy, despite my many years in public service, of being a change-maker,” Ellis said.

[…]

Jackson said she would better represent Precinct 1’s impoverished communities than Ellis and be a moderate advocate on criminal justice issues. She said the commissioner has failed to promote economic development in neighborhoods like Sunnyside and neglected the downtown criminal justice complex which was badly damaged by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. For starters, she said, Commissioners Court needs to build a new criminal courthouse.

“To me, Harris County has gone backwards,” Jackson said of Ellis’s tenure.

After five years as a municipal court judge, Jackson was elected as a felony judge in the 339th State District Court in 2008. She was the longest serving judge in Harris County when she stepped down in September to take a position in the tax assessor’s office and prepare for her Precinct 1 campaign.

During a 90-minute candidate screening with the Houston Chronicle editorial board last month, Ellis displayed a rapt attention for policy details he brings to Commissioners Court meetings. He said he benefits from a sharp team of analysts he assembled, in contrast to other commissioners who organize their staffs around road and park maintenance.

Jackson, 55, struggled to articulate positions on issues such as flood control and criminal justice reform.

She said she supported the landmark misdemeanor bail settlement Ellis helped draft, though she misstated parts of the deal. She alleged the settlement, which could cost as much as $97 million over seven years, would provide free Uber rides and cell phones to defendants. Those benefits were part of a draft settlement proposal, but were removed before Commissioners Court approved the agreement in July.

Jackson said she supports reforming the felony bail system, but criticized Ellis for supporting a potential lawsuit against the county’s felony judges to force changes. Judges have the expertise, she said, to ensure only defendants who pose a public safety risk are jailed before trial.

“You have to be thoughtful about dangerous criminals hurting the public,” Jackson said. “I just want to be smart on who’s released.”

My interview with Commissioner Ellis is here; as noted in that post, Jackson declined to do an interview with me. If you’re wondering what a “moderate advocate on criminal justice issues” might be, this appears later in the story:

Jackson accepted contributions from six bail bond firms, as well as the state bail bondsmen and Houston Police Officers Union political action committees in the last six months of 2019. Bail bond firms and the police union have lobbied against criminal justice reforms that would allow more defendants to be released without bail.

Yeah. The bail reform settlement we got doesn’t happen without Rodney Ellis. I was supporting him anyway, but that clinches it beyond any doubt. This is not a time to go backwards.

Judge Powell back on the ballot

So be it.

Judge George Powell

A civil court judge Wednesday ordered that sitting criminal district Judge George Powell be included on the March primary ballot after the Harris County Democratic Party denied his application for candidacy last month.

Party officials had to accept Powell’s application within 24 hours, and he needs to appear as a choice for voters during the election, Judge Lauren Reeder ordered. But the ruling is technically temporary and could be subject to appeal by the party or Powell’s primary opponent, who was a third-party “intervener” in Powell’s suit against the party.

“I’m very happy that the judge granted our request for an injunction and that he gets the chance to run again,” said Kent Schaffer, Powell’s attorney. “Ultimately, it’s the voters who should decide who the candidate’s going to be, and not a select few people who feel like it’s their right.”

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure. A statement party officials issued after Wednesday’s ruling made little mention of the outcome, however, and pointed to issues with the election code.

Party leaders weren’t able to approve Powell’s candidacy because state rules prevented it, they said. The judge paid an insufficient filing fee too close to the filing deadline, meaning his application was denied and the problem couldn’t be fixed without breaking state rules, party chair Lillie Schechter testified Tuesday.

“The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in,” party officials said in a statement. “Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.”

See here for the background, and here for a pre-hearing version of the story, which was also covered by Texas Lawyer. On the one hand, I agree with the HCDP: The rules are easy to understand. He could have filed earlier than the very last minute, when there was no time to fix this easily-corrected mistake. The party doesn’t have much discretion according to the law. On the other hand, I hate seeing people bumped from the ballot for nit-picky reasons. The law in question should be amended to allow a post-deadline grace period to correct technical errors like this (though again, if you know you’re going to run, file at least a day before the deadline and save yourself the trouble).

This is probably the end of the story. The HCDP does not plan to appeal, and intervenor/primary opponent Natalia Cornelio does not appear to be appealing, either. Fine by me, let’s get on to the campaign. One more thing first:

Powell’s lawyers hinted in Tuesday’s injunction hearing that the party might have an interest in keeping the judge from running for re-election, even though paying the incorrect amount might have been no more than a convenient mistake. Schaffer clarified afterward that he believes Ellis is pulling strings in the local Democratic Party, and wants his employee to run unopposed for the 351st state judicial district.

Ellis and Cornelio both helped draft a landmark settlement over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail system, which a federal judge said was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor defendants.

Powell was one of 11 current and former judges in the area who were admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2019 related to complaints that they instructed hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants. That admonishment has since been retracted for unknown reasons.

Randle called the claims “ludicrous,” and Cornelio’s attorney, Mynor E. Rodriguez, said he hadn’t heard those accusations.

Yeah, that admonishment, whatever happened to it. I wasn’t inclined to vote for Powell before any of this happened. I’m less inclined to vote for him now.

Former judge McSpadden rebuked by State Commission on Judicial Conduct

Good.

A former district judge who served on the Harris County bench for 36 years has received a formal reprimand from a state watchdog commission for comments he made to a Houston Chronicle reporter stating black defendants were getting poor guidance from their parents about how to behave when they’re suspected of crimes.

The commission’s rebuke also cited the former judge’s comments in an editorial he penned for the Chronicle expounding on black defendants’ attitudes toward the justice system.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a warning on Nov. 12 to Michael McSpadden, a Republican who served on the 209th Criminal Court from 1982 through the 2018 election, for “casting public discredit on the judiciary and the administration of justice,” based on a series of comments he made about defendants’ attitudes toward judges and police officers. The commission announced its decision on Monday.

The Austin-based panel found that McSpadden violated a portion of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that instructs judges not to do anything outside of court that casts reasonable doubt on the judge’s ability to act impartially. The panel also found McSpadden violated the Texas Constitution’s prohibition against “willful and persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties or casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice.”

The warning does not prevent McSpadden from sitting by assignment as a visiting judge, according to Eric Vinson, former executive director of the commission.

[…]

Ashton Woods, president of Black Lives Matter Houston, who called for McSpadden to come under scrutiny for the comments, said the former judge’s statement in chambers and in his editorial called into question his ideology, indicating he could not be fair to black defendants and people of color who came before him due to his preconceived notions of how they may think.

“There’s already an imbalance … and when people put their thumb on the scale like McSpadden did, it increases the disparity,” Woods said. “There may have well been innocent people going through his court and he may have thrown the book at them because he had a bias toward them.”

Woods said he hoped all of McSpadden’s rulings would be reviewed for impartiality.

James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the NAACP, said he did not think the commission went far enough.

“I think he should be banned from sitting on the bench,” Douglas said. “I don’t think he has the mental temperament or understanding of racial issues…Those views are not the views of a person who is totally impartial on the issue. He indicates he is not impartial when it relates to charges against African American males.”

See here and here for some background. The original comments from McSpadden, who was thankfully removed from the bench last year by the voters, came in a story about how he and others had “directed magistrates to deny no-cash bail to all newly arrested defendants”, over a period of nearly ten years. I agree that McSpadden’s previous rulings should be reviewed, and I definitely agree that he should never be allowed near a bench again. The visiting judge system needs an overhaul as it is, and it should be updated to exclude specifically problematic jurists like McSpadden. This is a no-brainer.

Judge officially approves final Harris County bail settlement

It’s officially finally final and official.

A federal judge has signed off on a historic bail reform agreement for Harris County, setting in place new protections for people accused of minor offenses in the country’s third largest criminal justice system.

The sweeping agreement and consent decree, officially approved Thursday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, seeks to level the playing field for the thousands of people arrested each year on misdemeanor charges. For years, judges jailed poor people by default while they awaited trial, while those with money to cover bail could walk free and return to their families and livelihoods.

[…]

Rosenthal wrote that her ruling was rooted in extensive legal findings over the past three years.

“No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are released on personal bonds — rich or poor — will appear for hearings or trial, or that they will commit no crimes on release,” Rosenthal said in a 55-page opinion. “No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are detained pending trial — rich or poor — should have been detained. But Harris County … can stop systematically depriving indigent misdemeanor defendants of their constitutionally-protected rights by detaining them simply because they cannot afford to post money bail.”

Her opinion acknowledged the objections brought up by “amici,” or friends of the court, including the state Attorney General’s Office, District Attorney Kim Ogg and County Commissioner Steve Radack, who voiced concerns at the final hearing that the deal limited judicial discretion and did not do enough to ensure the safety of communities.

“The court does not question the amici and objectors’ good faith,” she wrote. “The public safety and public resource concerns they raise are important.

“The proposed consent decree and settlement agreement are approved because these concerns are fully recognized and addressed,” the opinion said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement following the judge’s decision, saying it “puts to rest the arguments used to instill fear regarding the impact of bail reform.”

“We do not have to choose between protecting the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting public safety,” she said. “In fact, by reforming our broken bail system, we are taking a step toward rebuilding trust between our system of justice and the residents it serves.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said: “After decades of harmful injustice and three years of a legal battle waged in defense of our core principles of liberty, equal treatment and due process for all — no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin — Harris County’s oppressive and discriminatory misdemeanor cash bail practices are ending.”

You know the story by now. At this point, we need to focus on making this work as it is supposed to, to ensuring that we are making adjustments to the risk assessment tool as needed, and just generally measuring everything so a year from now we can present some metrics to show how it all has gone. There are still political fights to be had – just ask the people running against Vince Ryan and Kim Ogg, for starters, and the Lege still needs to address bail reform in a meaningful way – and there are still legal fights to be had – the second bail lawsuit, which is about felony defendants, and the Dallas County bail lawsuit, among others – but this was a huge step forward. A copy of the consent decree is here, and a copy of the settlement agreement is here. Kudos to everyone who helped make this happen.

The state of the county 2019

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has a lot of accomplishments to tout.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County in the past year has made significant progress on flood control, criminal justice and improving public health, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in her first State of the County address Friday.

The county executive also announced her administration would make significant investments in early childhood development in the coming year.

Hidalgo said the Houston area continues to enjoy a bustling economy and low unemployment, but said business and government leaders must not be complacent.

“To a veteran coming home ill-prepared for the 21st century job market, a low unemployment rate doesn’t mean much,” Hidalgo said at the annual luncheon, held this year at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel downtown. “To a family who struggles, a great medical center can’t help them if they don’t have health insurance.”

[…]

She lauded a historic settlement to reform the county’s bail system for misdemeanor defendants, which a federal judge had declared unconstitutional. Hidalgo thanked Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has long been an advocate on criminal justice issues.

She noted that in response to a series of chemical fires in east Harris County, Commissioners Court significantly increased the size of the pollution control and fire marshal’s offices, as well as purchased new air monitors.

“We’ve established the most robust environmental policy that Harris County has seen in at least 30 years,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo thanked the county’s flood control district and engineering department for speeding up work on the $2.5 billion flood infrastructure program and fast-tracking drainage projects in 105 subdivisions.

She also said her office has made county government more transparent by holding a series of town halls, developing a 311 call system and making a greater effort to include the public at more open, albeit lengthy, Commissioners Court meetings. Hidalgo said to date, four times as many residents have participated than last year.

You can see a copy of Judge Hidalgo’s prepared remarks here. I like the way she addressed the “concerns” some people had about her age, noting that the legendary Judge Roy Hofheinz was three years younger than she was when he was first elected. I think she has a lot to be proud of, and there’s clearly a lot more she has in mind to do. I’m looking forward to it. The Texas Signal has more.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

At least I assume it’s the last one. I’ve been thinking this was all over but for the formality for months now, so what do I know?

Dianna Williams has witnessed the “collateral damage” of jailing on the fabric of a family. The 61-year-old criminal justice advocate told a federal judge Monday that for generations, her relatives lived paycheck to paycheck and could not afford cash bail when her father and then her brother and her son were held pretrial on low level drug charges.

Mary Nan Huffman offered an opposing take to the judge presiding over a deal upending Harris County money bail for low level offenses. She recounted how her friend was walking with her 3-month-old when a man in a red truck trailed her and later showed up in her yard, masturbating with a knife in his hand. Under the new bail deal, the man would never see a judge and no one would hear that he was a three-time felon who’d been to prison for rape, indecent exposure or kidnapping, said Huffman, a spokesperson for Houston Police Officers’ Union.

Ultimately, the sheriff who oversees the third largest jail in the country sought to assuage fears of constituents on both sides of this contentious issue, telling Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal the consent decree approved last summer provides fundamental guarantees of justice enshrined in American law and warning against the inclination to let scary scenarios involving particular cases be the foundation of a bail system.

“I don’t think it’s effective for us to develop public policy on outliers,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during the court gathering known as a fairness hearing. “We have to rely on research and facts.”

The hearing attended by six misdemeanor judges who support the historic settlement and three commissioners court members, two of whom oppose it, and about 100 stakeholders lasted three hours, with the judge saying she would consider the input and issue an order soon.

[…]

In a typical class action, a fairness hearing offers class members a chance to express concerns with a settlement. The hearing Monday was unique in that nearly all the speakers were not parties in the lawsuit.

Here’s a preview story of the hearing. I think we all know the basic outline at this point, so all I really care about is when we’ll get the final order from Judge Rosenthal. And then we can relitigate everything in the 2020 elections.

Ogg continues to have problems with the bail settlement

I don’t like this.

Kim Ogg

District Attorney Kim Ogg is rallying police officers across Harris County to show up in federal court en masse to oppose to a landmark bail reform agreement at a final hearing set for this month.

She emailed about 100 police chiefs to invite them to attend an Oct. 28 court proceeding before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to lend support on an issue she says “endangers the public.”

In addition to recruiting top brass to the hearing, Ogg also requested that her lieutenants be present to support her concerns about portions of the settlement that allowed most defendants arrested on minor offenses to await trial at home without posting up-front cash bail, according to her spokesman, Dane Schiller.

Ogg expressed misgivings about the proposed consent decree approved last summer by Commissioners Court after months of intensive meetings between county leaders, judges and the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the 2016 class action.

Ogg, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, is among a number of parties, including many from the bail bond industry, who submitted concerns about the settlement in court during the summer.

“The district attorney has always supported bail reform, so that nobody is held just because they are poor, but she also says public safety should always be considered,” Schiller said.

[…]

The county public defender, who has been friends with Ogg since law school, said he suspects Ogg’s approach will be perceived as overkill by Rosenthal, the region’s highest ranking lifetime appointee to the federal bench.

“A courtroom full of police officers is not going to intimidate her,” said Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin. “She might be insulted that they would do that to her.”

“It’s over the top, and this kind of bravado backfires every time,” Bunin added. He said the majority of the concerns Ogg raised were resolved by a judicial rule passed in January.

See here and here for the background. I agree with Alex Bunin here, this is not going to help and will serve as fuel for Ogg’s primary opponents. The fears being expressed are overblown, and frankly it’s fine by me if the county has to experience a little inconvenience to accommodate a non-violent offender who need assistance getting back to court. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather pay for an Uber for that guy than pay to feed, clothe, and house him for some number of weeks or months. Maybe – stay with me here – we could arrest fewer of these non-violent mostly drug offenders in the first place, which would go a long way towards reducing inconvenience for everyone. In the meantime, the bail agreement is in place and it is going to be the law. Let’s all do what we can to make it work.

The visiting judge and the public defender

I want to understand more about this.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis is calling for a review of the process used to select substitute judges after fielding a scathing letter from the county’s public defender outlining two decades of allegations against ex-Judge Jim Wallace and questioning whether he is eligible to still sit as a “visiting” jurist in light of his disciplinary history.

The former elected judge, a Republican who left the bench in 2018, was one of 11 publicly admonished by state oversight officials in August for allegedly violating judicial canons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

That admonishment — which the State Commission on Judicial Conduct later retracted, according to Wallace’s attorney — was just one of nearly a dozen incidents outlined in the two-page letter, which also detailed Wallace’s previous disciplinary actions and a more recent courtroom spat when he suggested that a female attorney was objecting too often and told her she should just “stay standing through the whole trial and save your knees.”

The letter, signed by Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin, called those actions “prejudicial to a fair trial” and suggested that the county get a legal opinion on whether Wallace is still eligible to get work as a visiting judge in light of his history.

The regional administrative judge who approves such appointments said that Wallace does qualify because his disciplinary matters were considered lower-level infractions. Wallace, meanwhile, disputed some of the allegations against him, and argued that his other actions were justified or taken out of context.

“They’re bringing up a bunch of stuff that’s totally not true and inaccurate,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “I’m a judge that comes from the old school but I’m not gonna be intimidated by the public defender’s office.”

To Ellis, the letter raises questions about whether judges who were voted out of office or left the bench should still be overseeing local courtrooms. Though he conceded it’s not clear what changes county-level elected officials could implement, on Friday he added the issue to the next Commissioners Court agenda and said he planned to go to the county attorney for advice.

“I’m not sure what can be done,” he said, “but I’m sure what cannot be — and that’s for us to turn a blind eye.”

See here for more on that admonishment. I for one would like to know for sure if the State Commission on Judicial Conduct did in fact retract it, which if true seems to me to be a big deal and a key fact, or if this one judge’s lawyer is just saying they did. The rest of the story goes into the charges levied by Alex Bunin and Judge Wallace’s responses to them. I don’t have nearly enough information to assess them, so I support Commissioner Ellis’ call to review the entire system, which I’m guessing hasn’t had any such review ever. Maybe everything is working fine, maybe there are a few tweaks here and there that could be made, and maybe a wholesale overhaul is in order. Now is as good a time as any to do that, so let’s move on it and see what we find out.

Galveston ordered to provide counsel at bail hearings

Sure seems like the proper thing to do.

Add Galveston to the list of Texas counties that have been court ordered to change their bail practices.

A federal district judge on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction in a 2018 lawsuit where attorneys for inmates have called Galveston County’s money bail system discriminatory against poor criminal defendants. The court’s order doesn’t target the entire pretrial system — which has largely changed since the suit was filed after federal rulings against Harris County. But it requires poor arrestees to have a lawyer at their first court appearance, where their bail is set to determine the monetary or other conditions under which an arrestee can be released from jail before trial.

The ACLU of Texas, which represents Galveston County inmates in the lawsuit, said in a statement after the order that it was the first court in the country to conclude that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a right to counsel, requires defense attorneys to be provided at initial bail-setting hearings.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”

[…]

Since the lawsuit was filed — and as the two most populous counties in the state were repeatedly slammed by federal judges for their bail practices — Galveston County has transformed its pretrial practices. The district attorney’s office still recommends bail amounts from a schedule, but the judicial officer setting bail now has financial information the defendant provided before the first court appearance. Defendants who want to request a lower bond amount for financial reasons can get a second bail review hearing, typically within 12 hours of their first court appearance, where a defense attorney is present to represent all the defendants before the judge in that time slot.

U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr.’s injunction, however, said the county needs to have a lawyer not just at the review hearings, but at the initial court appearance. He clarified that the order applies to those arrested without warrants and that are first seen in court through Galveston County jail. Hanks adopted the recommendation of magistrate judge Andrew Edison, who said having a defense attorney at a hearing where the court determines how, if at all, to release a defendant before trial, is “a no-brainer.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here and a copy of the magistrate’s recommendations is here. I have to say, I don’t know what the argument against providing an attorney for defendants at bail hearings is, but we’ll find out if there’s an appeal. The Chron has more.

One more step towards the bail lawsuit settlement

We’re almost there. I know it feels like we’ve been there for awhile and are just waiting for it all to become official, but there were still a few checkpoints to get through first, and this is one of them.

In a move that signals she will likely approve a landmark bail agreement, a federal judge in Houston issued a lengthy opinion Thursday meticulously addressing concerns raised by outside parties to the proposed consent decree that would govern bail practices in Harris County for the next seven years.

The 55-page document from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal is not the norm in that preliminary approvals at this point in most class action suits usually take up half a page, at most two pages, according to lawyers familiar with typical dockets.

In the opinion, the judge addresses whether the deal was properly negotiated, whether it addressed the needs of all parties and whether the solution was adequate given the potential delays, costs and impact on public safety.

Specifically, she said the plan hit on the key factors required: it addressed the constitutional violations, protected poor defendants, safeguarded the public and reduced the chances that defendants would miss hearings.

While atypical, Rosenthal’s comprehensive memorandum and opinion are in keeping with how the judge runs her office, according to a former law clerk who served in the Houston federal courthouse.

“I’d say this is pretty standard for a judge who is thorough to a fault,” the former clerk said. “It definitely signals ultimate approval, but the point isn’t to telegraph.”

The clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, continued, “It’s simply to respond to the filings in a complete and timely way.”

[…]

Two county commissioners who opposed the resolution — Jack Cagle and Steve Radack — submitted their concerns to the judge along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, the Pasadena police chief and several organizations. The objectors included the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association, the Texas School District Police Chiefs’Association, the Professional Bondsmen of Harris County, Equal Justice Now, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc. and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

The parties directly involved in the case then submitted detailed responses to these amicus or “friend of the court” briefs.

Rosenthal said “the amicus briefs and objections do not identify an adequate basis to deny preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and consent decree.”

See here for the background. Ogg, who continues to talk about the imminent settlement in a way that makes one think she’s asking for trouble in her forthcoming primary election, made a statement about how it’s now all up to the judges to make this work. It’s always been all up to the judges, it’s just that in the past they did a lousy job of that. There’s a “final fairness hearing” set for October 21, and I’m guessing we’ll get the officially signed and sanctioned settlement agreement some time after that. I’m ready for this to be over and done.