Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

bail

More evidence of misdemeanor bail reform’s success

Lower costs, fewer wrongful incarcerations and guilty pleas, less recidivism. What more do you want?

Fewer misdemeanor defendants went on to commit crimes in Harris County after federal litigation in 2017 aimed at curtailing the jailing of low-income people charged with low-level offenses, according to a recent study.

A 13 percent rise in pre-trial releases within 24 hours of a defendant’s arrest also followed the judicial injunction, the court order that researchers found led to positive reforms in Houston’s criminal justice system. Judicial jurisdictions elsewhere have watched the progress of Harris County’s reforms to create their own, researchers with the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania said.

“I think that it shows that misdemeanor bail reform, when implemented properly, can work,” said Paul Heaton, academic director for the Quattrone Center — a research and policy institute with the University of Pennsylvania. “It led to less costly punishment for the defendants and tax payers — it didn’t increase crime.”

The findings come amid years of tense debate over the bail reform’s implications and whether it has any connection to the local rise in homicides and other violent crimes, which increased nationwide during the pandemic. Prosecutors, law enforcement, bail bondsmen and victims’ rights advocates are among the opponents of the changes.

Houston police on Wednesday said that non-violent crime had decreased by five percent since this time in 2021 — and violent crime had dropped 10 percent during the same time frame.

Researchers went through about 517,000 misdemeanor and felony cases in Harris County filed from 2015 until last May, but focused on the months surrounding the start of the injunction — prior to the havoc that Hurricane Harvey and the pandemic caused in the courts. Unresolved cases increased later in 2017 — likely because of court closures in the storm’s wake, according to the study.

Conviction rates dropped by 15 percent, and the length of jail sentences for those low-level offenses also declined by 15 percent after the injunction, the study found. The injunction stemmed from several defendants lodging a federal lawsuit arguing that the bail practices in Harris County were unconstitutional. The county settled the lawsuit in 2019 with the arrival of Democratic judges and a federal jurist issued a landmark opinion, prompting the O’Donnell consent decree and independent monitoring group to issue reports on the effects.

Misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan, who helped shaped the consent decree, said the Quattrone study, mirrors the progress noted in the mandated monitor reports. He commended the decision for having allowed some defendants in his courts and others to get out of jail within 24 hours of their arrest. The alternative was worse, he said.

“They lose their house, car, families, jobs and they come out of jail in a state of chaos,” said Jordan, who oversees the Criminal Court of Law No. 16. “They have to find a way to get back on their feet and make a living.”

If the reforms are working in Harris County — one of the most populous counties in the U.S. — they can be implemented elsewhere, the judge said.

[…]

A report issued in March by Brandon Garrett, a professor for Duke University’s School of Law tasked with overseeing the decree oversight, found that repeat offenders, those arrested for misdemeanor offenses, “remained largely stable in recent years.” The same study also found that, from 2015 to 2019, convictions declined and the number of dismissals and acquittals doubled.

The fifth report from Garrett’s team is slated to be released Saturday.

You can see the UPenn report here. Brandon Garrett has been issuing reports as the overseer for the past two years. We’ve had two years of data on this now, and the findings are clear. I suppose it could change tomorrow, but unless that happens there’s just no reason take the critics of misdemeanor bail reform seriously. Bloomberg News has more.

New bail bond rule survives again

On to the appeals.

A judge rejected a second attempt by a bail bonding business to put an end to a Harris County rule requiring defendants accused of violent offenses to pay a minimum 10 percent fee to secure their release from jail, officials said Monday.

55th District Court Judge Latosha Payne ruled Aug. 9 against a temporary injunction stemmed from civil litigation lodged in April against the Harris County Bail Bond Board that attempted to prevent the premium policy from taking effect. A judge blocked the initial attempt as well.

All About Bail Bonds owner and plaintiff Sunya Claiborne argued in the lawsuit that the policy jeopardizes her business — calling the minimum fee requirement “classic price fixing and a per se antitrust violation.” The lawyer for the plaintiff, Kevin Pennell, said he plans this week to appeal the judge’s order.

Without the minimum fee, Claiborne planned to “offer competitive pricing of less than 10% of the face amount of the bond to consumers who desire to purchase a bail bond for themselves, or their loved ones charged with a designated offense and qualify for reduced payment terms,” according to court documents.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office — whose attorneys were unaware of the judge’s ruling until the order was uploaded Monday to the Harris County District Clerk’s Office — defended the Bail Bond Board against the lawsuit. The policy was prompted by a Commissioners Court resolution urging the board members to adopt rules regulating the minimum fee that a bondsman must collect to secure a defendant’s release on violent charges.

“People accused of violent crimes should not get any discounts while they await trial,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who proposed the fee minimum to county commissioners, said in a statement. “This affects no one accused of the most minor, nonviolent offenses who would be stuck in jail because they aren’t able to pay.”

See here and here for some background. The original hearing was in the 269th Civil Court, and the second hearing was to have been on May 6. I don’t know why the change of court and I don’t know if the second hearing was delayed or if it just took that long for a ruling, but here we are. I thought the “price fixing” argument was weak and as such I’m not surprised at this outcome. I don’t see the appeals being successful, but maybe there’s some technical point of law on which they can get a rehearing. Given the speed of the appellate process, expect it to be a long time before the next update.

New bail bond rules survive initial court challenge

There are a couple of stories all rolled into this, so my apologies for any confusion.

A ruling by a Harris County judge Friday will allow a recently-approved policy requiring bail bond agents to charge some defendants a 10 percent minimum to start Saturday after a last-minute lawsuit tried to stop it from happening.

Court records filed Friday showed a bail bondsman sued Harris County as an attempt to stop the new rule, which would require agents like her to charge defendants jailed on violent offenses a 10 percent minimum to secure their freedom after an arrest. But in court over Zoom late Friday afternoon, Judge Cory Don Sepolio rejected a temporary restraining order request, allowing the rule to take effect.

“The Bail Bond Board adopted this rule after hearing directly from the families of victims of violent crimes, community organizers, and law enforcement. Their decision was supported by Harris County Commissioners Court and leaders of both political parties,” a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee read. “I’m pleased with the court’s decision today to reject the request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked this rule from being implemented.”

Regarding the temporary restraining order request getting rejected, Kevin Pennell — the plaintiff’s lawyer — said in an email Friday he had no comment.

The lawsuit follows the approval by the Harris County Bail Bond Board to require bondsmen to take in 10 percent or more of the surety bond minimum — set by a judge or magistrate — to make it more difficult for violent offenders to leave jail and go on to commit more crime. The proposed rule stemmed from concerns that defendants were being released on bail fees lower than the 10 percent and then being forced into payment plans.

[…]

The bail board, as the lawsuit points out, is designed to oversee the bonding business in Harris County. Up until March, the board primarily approved and renewed bail bondsman licenses. The Harris County Attorney’s Office determined that the board can do more than that and Commissioners Court passed a resolution urging its members to adopt rules regulating the minimum that a bondsman must collect to secure a defendant’s release from jail.

The board passed the rule April 13 after a failed vote the month prior.

I didn’t write about the initial failure of the board to pass a rule requiring that bail bond companies must charge a minimum of ten percent of whatever bail had been set. Bail band companies had been lowering that percentage from what had once been seen as a de facto standard of ten percent because of the misdemeanor bail reform. With fewer people needing bail bonds because fewer people were being assessed bail, bail bond companies saw their revenues decline and so they looked for new customers by lowering their fees so as to entice those who were still being required to pay bail but couldn’t afford their fees. It’s a complicated story. The Harris County Bail Bond Board, on its second attempt, passed a rule that made the ten percent minimum a requirement, and in response a bail bond company owner filed a lawsuit to stop it.

All About Bail Bonds owner Sunya Claiborne, plaintiff in the lawsuit, contends that her business is at stake because the minimum charge requirement is “classic price fixing and a per se antitrust violation without any grant of state authority to displace competition,” according to court documents. The county and Claiborne’s lawyers are expected later on Friday to debate whether a temporary restraining order and injunction should be granted.

“She reasonably fears that, unless she complies with these unlawful rules, her license will be suspended or revoked,” the lawsuit reads. “But if she does comply with them, she will be participating in an illegal price fixing scheme and violating her customers’ privacy rights.”

[…]

The new rule is at odds with how Claiborne, whose license the board renewed ahead of the most-recent vote, plans to conduct her business, according to the court documents.

“She intends to offer competitive pricing of less than 10% of the face amount of the bond to consumers who desire to purchase a bail bond for themselves, or their loved ones charged with a designated offense and qualify for reduced payment terms,” the lawsuit continued.

As a bail agent for the corporate surety Allegheny Casualty Co., she also worries that the new rule will put her at odds with the insurance company — which she fears could violate customer privacy. Part of the new rule requires that bail bondsmen have to report the premium amount collected ahead of the defendant’s release. The bondsmen would also have to report how the premium was paid and who paid it.

Premiums are, in some cases, documented in the public record. Affidavits of surety to surrender principal often list the premium and are filed by bail agents as an attempt to cut ties with a defendant’s bond, usually after a new charge. In filing the form, bail agents ask deputies to take the defendant into custody, while they keep the defendant’s bail deposit and stop being responsible for the person in the eyes of the court.

I’m pretty sure this is not what antitrust law was intended for, but what do I know? The initial request for a temporary restraining order was denied on Friday, and there will be a hearing for a temporary injunction on May 6. I don’t expect that to be any more successful, but we’ll see.

We don’t really need more prosecutors on the bench

Ugh.

Kim Ogg

On a winter afternoon nine months into the pandemic, Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg held a Zoom meeting with felony judges and prosecutors to discuss the backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 shutdowns at the downtown Houston courthouse. But the backlog wasn’t the only issue to come up that day. For years, the Democratic DA had been publicly criticizing local judges who set what she deemed insufficiently high bonds for defendants accused of violent crimes. Now her office would deliver a direct warning. First assistant district attorney David Mitcham, Ogg’s top lieutenant, informed the judges that there would be a “reckoning” if they didn’t start setting higher bonds.

“My reaction was like, ‘Wow, that was bold,’ ” said Joe Vinas, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, who was on the call representing the criminal defense bar. “One of the judges asked if Mitcham was threatening him.”

Many in Houston’s legal community have thought back to that moment, now that fourteen Harris County prosecutors and one DA investigator have filed to run for criminal court judgeships this year—eight in Democratic primaries, seven in Republican primaries. It’s not unusual for prosecutors to run for judgeships, but the high number in this election cycle has raised eyebrows. In 2020 not a single Harris County prosecutor ran in any of the nine local criminal court races; in 2018, which featured 31 races, just one prosecutor ran. But with Ogg linking a sharp rise in homicides to the bail practices of reform-minded judges elected in recent years, perhaps it’s no surprise that so many of her prosecutors are challenging the 29 Democratic incumbents up for reelection this year.

[…]

In 2019 Harris County agreed to a sweeping set of reforms, including the elimination of cash bail for the vast majority of misdemeanor defendants. Instead, defendants would be released before trial on so-called “personal bonds,” which require no up-front payment. The landmark settlement, the first of its kind in the U.S., was endorsed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and every other major county-wide Democratic officeholder—with the exception of Ogg, who warned that letting defendants out on personal bonds would threaten the public by giving judges “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” to delay trials or excuse defendants from ever appearing in court.

In the wake of Harris County’s settlement, Travis County also eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor offenses. Two recent academic studies have found that this reform has been effective. Fewer defendants are now incarcerated before trial and those released on personal bonds have proven unlikely to be rearrested. But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from arguing that more lenient bail policies are endangering public safety. And Republicans, who have not won a county-wide race in Harris County since 2014, hope to capitalize on the issue to regain some judgeships and other offices in 2022.

The concerns about bail reform have been exacerbated by local and national spikes in violent crime over the past two years. Between 2019 and 2020, murders jumped by nearly 30 percent across the country—the largest year-over-year increase in at least six decades—and homicides rose again in 2021 (although the FBI hasn’t released its final data). That trend has held true for Houston: there were an estimated 469 homicides in the city last year, an increase of 71 percent from 2019. That’s still well below the 701 killings in 1981, the city’s deadliest year, when the population was nearly one million less.

Violent crimes such as assault have also increased since 2019, both nationally and in Harris County, although nonviolent crime is down. While the national homicide rate remains below its historic peak in the early nineties, the rapid increase has received intense attention in local media, with crime stories frequently leading television news. Houston’s Fox 26 features a recurring segment called “Breaking Bond”—created in collaboration with nonprofit group Crime Stoppers of Houston—about felony defendants who are rearrested while out on bail. The series regularly features prominent local Republicans blasting Democratic judges for their bail practices.

Criminologists disagree on the reason for the rising crime, but most agree that pandemic-induced frustrations, the surge in gun sales during the coronavirus outbreak, and a general police pullback in reaction to protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have something to do with it. There’s little evidence to connect bail reform with the surge in homicides, but one notorious case last September added fuel to the argument. After judge Greg Glass set bonds of $10,000 and $20,000 for two drug charges against thirty-year-old Deon Ledet, the Harris County man went free and allegedly killed one police officer and injured another. Prosecutors had asked Glass to hold Ledet without bond because he had twice been convicted of a felony. In March, Glass (who did not respond to an interview request) faces two primary challengers, one of them a Polk County assistant district attorney; if he prevails, he’ll face one of Ogg’s Republican prosecutors in the fall general election.

There’s a lot in here to annoy me, starting with the conflation of the reforms to misdemeanor bail reform and complaints about the amounts of bail being set by felony court judges. The simple fact of the matter is that if your system allows for any possibility of bail, sooner or later someone, whether out on ten dollars bail or ten million dollars bail, is going to commit a crime. You could have a system that’s right 99.9% of the time, but given the thousands of people that go through the courts each year, that means multiple times each year when that happens. Unless your solution is to lock everyone up from the time they’re arrested until the time their case is completed in whatever fashion, no matter what the charge or their circumstances or anything else, then you need to accept this basic fact of life.

(Such a solution would be blatantly unconstitutional, of course. So is simply charging everyone more for bail, since that makes bail only accessible to the wealthy, and punishes others for being poor. Which is what the misdemeanor bail lawsuit was all about. That does introduce some risk as noted, but we’re trying to balance it against the enormous wrong of locking up people who have not been convicted of any crime. Sometimes these things don’t have simple answers.)

Look, you can read the various judicial Q&A responses I’ve published from incumbents and candidates. I’ll have run over 40 of them by the time all is said and done. I’ve no doubt some of these assistant DAs would be fine judges. But this isn’t a good look, and I’m not at all inclined to view their time in that office as a positive because of it. And speaking as someone who has voted for Kim Ogg in each of the past two primaries, I’ll be looking very carefully at my other options in 2024.

A long story about the bail industry

It’s complicated.

Judges set bail, but it’s the bondsmen who decide how much a defendant pays to get out of jail.

The long-held 10 percent standard — with defendants or their loved ones paying a tenth of the bail amount to a private company — is not gospel anymore in Harris County and likely never was. People have been securing their release from jail on lower fees for years, according to county data and bail agents.

Bondsmen recently have been accepting lower-percentage fees on an increasing number of violent felonies. The discount makes it clear that judges are not always determining what people have to pay to get out of jail, and the implications for defendants, victims and the system are far-reaching.

“That means the cash bond system itself is serving a danger to the community,” state District Judge Chris Morton said. “Any time there’s a for-profit aspect to criminal justice, that creates the opportunity for oppression and inconsistencies in justice.”

Bail is the money a defendant must pay in order to get out of jail. A bond is posted on a defendant’s behalf, usually by a bail bond company, to secure his or her release. Such a surety bond is like a security deposit.

Bail is not intended as a punishment. It is rather a way of securing a defendant’s agreement to abide by certain conditions and return to court. The standard for bail in most jurisdictions — and other states — is that a bail agent requires 10 percent of the bail amount plus collateral to secure a defendant’s freedom. In Harris County, bail companies rarely pay in full and give the court an equivalent of a provisional IOU with the backing of insurance agencies, said County Court at Law No. 8 Judge Franklin Bynum.

If a defendant skips court, prosecutors can move to revoke or forfeit the defendant’s bond. Revocations trigger an arrest warrant and their return to court upon their capture. Forfeitures are a more tedious process that results in the court keeping the bail amount — but only after a judge agrees and prosecutors successfully sue to seize the money.

In Texas, the 10 percent figure is referenced in Texas Insurance Code, which states that payments above that amount could be subject to regulations. No minimum is required.

[…]

Profits diminished for bail companies after Harris County began adopting bail reform in 2017, requiring cash-free releases for most poor misdemeanor defendants. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, with about 80 permitted as of September to operate, records show.

One estimate from monitors tracking the implementation of bail reform indicated that bail bond earnings in Harris County went from around $3.5 million in 2015 to slightly over $500,000 in 2019.

The dwindling bail landscape caused agents to adapt or close up shop. Many padded their business with felony cases, some carrying higher bonds and more risk of defendants skipping court. Some bail agents are relying more on payment plans and are not asking for collateral — a house, car or other possession.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed hundreds of court records and found that bail bondsmen for years have been granting less than 10 percent rates on surety bonds. A sampling of data for the first six months of 2021 supported bondsmen, defense attorney and judges’ anecdotes that bail agents are more frequently charging lower fees, sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent, at times on more violent crimes. Some of the defendants are then put on payment plans for the remainder of the money.

“We’re business people,” said Michael Kubosh, an at-large city councilman and former bondsman. “You collect what you can.”

While seemingly better for defendants, the lower fees are concerning to lawyers and jurists. Several judges worry that they no longer can count on defendants paying 10 percent for their pretrial release; others feel that even at lower rates, bail is still too much for some.

Authorities believe some defendants have committed more crime to pay bail for themselves and others, according to court records.

Jose Luis Perez — on bond for a prior offense — was charged in March with robbing a woman at gunpoint; he told officers he needed cash to pay for the bail, meaning he was likely on a payment plan, prosecutors said. He faced additional charges in federal court, and the state case was later dismissed.

Prosecutors say that the lower payments also minimize the pressure to return to court, because more money down means defendants would feel beholden to family members who put their livelihoods on the line to free them.

Advocates, meanwhile, do not believe any amount of cash bail keeps the public safe, and they feel bail discounts and payment plans show how many defendants — primarily poor people of color — remain on the hook with private enterprises after securing their freedom.

There’s more, so read the rest. As the story notes, only the US and the Philippines have this sort of cash bail system, and that just seems to me like a bad place to be. As you know, I’m a believer in getting rid of cash bail as part of a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system. We’ve taken a small but important step forward in Harris County, but there’s still a lot to do and a lot of resistance to overcome. This story will give you a feel for some of that.

Sine die’d

Special session 2.0 is over. And what a lousy thing it was.

The Texas Legislature adjourned its second special session Thursday evening, ending a nearly 30-day stretch that was called to pass a GOP elections bill after House Democrats carried out a weekslong quorum break to block the passage of that legislation during the summer’s first overtime round.

The two chambers gaveled out minutes apart after giving final approval to a number of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda items, including so-called critical race theory legislation and a bill that will, among other things, restore funding for the Legislature itself.

The House adjourned first, with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, wishing members a happy Labor Day weekend before gaveling out.

Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told senators he was proud of their work and nodded to another yet-to-be-called special session that will focus on the redistricting process in the coming weeks — where lawmakers will draw new political maps for the state’s congressional delegation, the Legislature and the State Board of Education.

“We’ll be back soon,” he said. “There’s a little bit of unfinished business yet to be done.”

Earlier Thursday, state lawmakers passed legislation that restores funding for the Legislature — including salaries and benefits for some 2,100 state employees — that was set to run out at the end of the month after Abbott vetoed those dollars earlier this summer. The governor’s veto was intended as retribution for House Democrats who walked out of the Capitol in the final hours of the regular legislative session to block a GOP elections bill in May.

In addition to restoring the funding, the Legislature this week passed a similar version of that controversial GOP elections bill. State lawmakers also reworked the process for releasing accused criminals on bail, beefed up border security fundingexpanded virtual learning for studentsrestricted use of abortion-inducing drugs and banned the storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas.

The small bit of good news is that the transgender sports bill and the last-minute fraudit bill did not pass, though as noted there will be another shot at that. Redistricting is up next, and the rumor mill suggests we will have two weeks off before the machinery cranks up again. I suppose it’s possible there could be a temporary restraining order in the lawsuit filed against doing legislative redistricting, but as Congressional redistricting would still be on the menu that would not stop the session from being needed. Anyway, enjoy the brief respite before the next bout of madness begins.

Other things the Lege has been up to

A brief roundup, to clear some tabs…

Bad Bail Bill 2.0 moves forward.

A sweeping revision of the process for releasing accused criminals on bail won initial approval from the Texas House on Friday night, nearly three months after the GOP-priority legislation stalled in the regular legislative session.

Senate Bill 6, which would require people accused of violent crimes to put up cash to get out of jail, tentatively passed the House on an 82-37 party line vote. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this month on a 27-2 vote.

A House committee advanced the bill Monday after taking out a controversial provision that would have restricted charitable groups from posting bail for defendants, a practice that gained popularity last summer when groups posted bail to release people arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.

On Friday, House members added a related provision back into the bill that does not limit the ability of such groups to post bail. Instead, the amendment would require charitable bail funds to be certified by county officials as nonprofit organizations and file reports on who they bond out of jail.

“The original bill that came over [from the Senate] was essentially going to outlaw … the charitable bail process,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, on his amendment. “We made it very clear to the other side of the building that this would not stand.”

The bill still needs to pass the House a final time before it is sent back to the Senate, which can either accept the House changes or enter into closed-door negotiations. State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who authored the bill, did not respond to questions about House changes this week.

See here and here for some background. This is bad, and there’s a decent chance parts if not all of it will eventually be found unconstitutional, but in the short term it will do some damage. Go read Grits for Breakfast or follow him on Twitter for a deeper dive.

Some virtual learning gets funded.

After months in limbo, Texas lawmakers took a step toward expanding and funding virtual learning as the pandemic still proves a threat to families not yet comfortable sending their children back to classrooms.

The Texas House approved Senate Bill 15 on Friday night in a 115-3 vote. The bill will go to a final reading and vote in the House before making its way to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

The House’s initial approval of the bill will give some parents a measure of relief that there could be more virtual learning options as the pandemic once again strains the state’s resources. Hospitalizations and cases are surging due to the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.

Necessary, albeit regrettable. We wouldn’t be revisiting this topic if we had a better handle on COVID, but given that we are not we need to acknowledge reality where we can. This is one reasonable place to do so.

More border boondoggling.

The Texas House approved nearly $2 billion in additional funding for border security operations, giving Gov. Greg Abbott more state dollars to implement his plans to build a border wall and incarcerate migrants for state criminal offenses in an effort to deter migrants from coming to the state.

Lawmakers gave initial approval Friday to a funding bill by a vote of 81-38 that would triple what the state allocated for border security during the last biennium. The $1.88 billion appropriated by House Bill 9 is in addition to the $1.05 billion lawmakers approved for border security this spring.

“There’s a crisis on our southern border with serious consequences extending throughout our state,” said Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who authored the bill. “Texas must respond to the crisis that has been brought to our doorstep.”

In June, Abbott announced Texas would build a state-funded border wall to decrease the number of migrants entering through its border with Mexico. Earlier this year, the two-term Republican governor launched Operation Lone Star, an effort that directed state military and police resources to the border to aid local and federal authorities fighting the smuggling of people and drugs across the border.

Abbott, who is seeking reelection next year, had previously said he expects the state to build hundreds of miles of wall along the state’s 1,254-mile border with Mexico, but had not specified where the wall would be or how much it would cost.

This message has been paid for by the Greg Abbott campaign.

More money for “temporary” hospital workers.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that for the second time amid a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that Texas will increase the number of state-funded relief workers it will be sending to Texas hospitals, bringing the total to 8,100.

The Texas Department of State Health Services had previously authorized contracting 5,600 medical personnel, and Thursday’s announcement adds 2,500 more.

During the state’s winter COVID-19 surge, more than 13,500 temporary medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. Those numbers began to dwindle once cases started to decrease and vaccinations became more widely available.

Now, the highly-contagious delta variant has pushed the state to reverse course and again take the lead in alleviating staffing shortages as hospitals are inundated with COVID-19 patients and intensive care unit beds are becoming scarce. On Aug. 9, Abbott directed DSHS to use staffing agencies to secure out-of-state medical personnel for Texas hospitals and asked hospitals to voluntarily halt elective medical procedures.

The state will fully fund the temporary health workers through Sept. 30.

Not technically a Lege thing, but Lege-adjacent. See my previous point about things we wouldn’t need to be doing if we had handled COVID better. I have no idea where we will find all these relief workers, but that’s yet another mess Greg Abbott will have to clean up for himself.

And finally, one thing the Lege hasn’t been doing:

And yet here we are. Still not too late, I suppose, but with every passing day this becomes more and more true.

The bail bill and the quorum

Now that there’s a quorum (or a “quorum”, if you prefer) in the State House again, bills other than the voter suppression bill are getting hearings and will be moved forward for votes. Nearly all of them are terrible, and most of them will breeze on through, but some of them may run into some resistance. These bills may actually have trouble passing if there are enough Democrats to vote against them. I say all that as preamble to say that there are reasons why legislators who had previously held firm on breaking quorum may want to reconsider.

A Texas House committee controlled by Republicans held off on advancing their party’s priority bail reform bill after a four-hour hearing Saturday, during which lawmakers from both parties took aim at a provision that would bar most charitable organizations from posting bail for certain defendants.

The news came as a pleasant surprise to opponents who expected the controversial measure to advance after state Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican in charge of the committee, announced at the outset of the hearing that he would call for a vote before adjourning.

Reversing course hours later, Ashby said the committee would probably consider the bill at its Monday hearing on unrelated legislation, citing the need for lawmakers to address issues raised during public testimony Saturday. He did not say how lawmakers might amend the 35-page bill, though a majority of committee members — including two Republicans who voted to advance prior versions — appear to oppose the restrictions on charitable bail organizations.

“What difference does it make where the money comes from?” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “If this is a way just to pay the bail bondsmen, let’s just say it.”

While Geren and state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, expressed newfound criticism of that portion of the bill, Saturday’s hearing otherwise closely resembled one held six weeks ago, when the same committee advanced an earlier iteration of the measure on a party-line vote.

Those who support the bill, most of whom are Republicans, continued to argue that the measure would crack down on the growing number of defendants charged with new felonies and misdemeanors while out on bond — a tally that has tripled in Harris County since 2015 — by limiting the opportunity for defendants to be released on no-cost personal bonds and giving judges more information about a defendant’s criminal history when setting bail.

The mostly Democratic opponents of the bill also rehashed their argument that the limits on no- and low-cost bonds would do nothing to curtail violent crime, with some pointing to a Houston Chronicle analysis that found most people accused of murder while out on bond in Harris County had secured their release by paying bail — a circumstance not directly addressed in the bill. They also say the proposed restrictions on personal bonds are overly expansive and would further overcrowd Texas jails, exacerbating an already massive backlog of cases that they say is mostly what’s driving the problem.

See here for the previous update. Let’s be clear about a couple of things. There’s plenty more about this bill that’s bad than just the ban on charitable organizations paying for bail. It would be simple enough for the Republicans to remove that provision (as they did with the “souls to the polls” and “make it easy for a judge to overturn an election” parts of the voter suppression bill), then pat themselves on the back and have it all declared to be fixed and vote it forward. They could also strip that provision from the House version, then have it added back in when it goes to conference committee. Dems have extremely limited power here, but if they are in full attendance that at least reduces the margin of error Republicans have, and allows for the possibility that the bill could just die because there weren’t enough votes for it. That’s a victory that has a chance to be longer-term. There are no guarantees – indeed, I’d call this scenario against the odds – but it could happen. But only if there are enough Democrats present to make that an actual possibility.

I’m not arguing for or against what any individual member should do at this point. There are still legitimate concerns for the remaining holdouts, and there needs to be a lot of work done to repair relationships where possible. All I am saying here is that now that there is a quorum, and other bills are being brought up for hearings and votes, the decision to attend or not at this point is more complex and nuanced than it was before. Please take that into consideration when other members of the Democratic caucus do or do not announce their return.

Day 2 quorum busting omnibus post

Gonna round up a few stories here. Don’t know how often I’ll be this energetic, or how often there will be this many stories that I see that are worth commenting on, but it is Day Two. We’re just getting started, and there’s lots of people still paying attention.

The cops are almost certainly not coming for the wayward Dems. I mean, come on.

A showdown in the Texas House was locked into place Tuesday after the chamber voted overwhelmingly to send law enforcement after Democrats who left the state a day earlier in protest of a GOP priority elections legislation.

More than 50 House Democrats left Monday for Washington, D.C., to deny the chamber a quorum — the minimum number of lawmakers needed to conduct business — as it takes up voting restrictions and other Republican priorities in a special session.

That agenda, set by Gov. Greg Abbott, includes House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, the election legislation at hand that would make a number of changes to Texas’ voting system, such as banning drive-thru and 24 hour voting options and further restricting the state’s voting-by-mail rules. Over the weekend, both House and Senate committees advanced the election bills.

The impact of the House move is unclear since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction in the nation’s capital.

Meeting shortly after 10 a.m., the House quickly established that it lacked the two-thirds quorum required to do business, with only 80 of 150 members participating in a test vote.

Then Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the House Administration Committee, moved to issue what is known as a “call of the House” to try to regain quorum. That motion passed 76-4. Metcalf offered another motion, asking that “the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary.” That motion also passed 76-4.

Metcalf’s motions were opposed by four Democrats who were present on the House floor Tuesday morning: Reps. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass and John Turner of Dallas.

Axios noted Greg Abbott on Fox News shaking his fist and threatening arrest as well. It’s noise – remember, a big part of this is about the PR for both sides – and in all honesty, it’s what I’d do in the Republicans’ position. Let’s just say I will be extremely surprised if anyone is met at the airport by police on the way back.

If 58 Dems went to DC, then there were nine who did not. We know four of them, at least, and they make sense – Guillen and Morales represent districts carried by Trump in 2020, King’s district trended redder in both 2016 and 2020, and Turner is not running for re-election. I’ll be interested to see who the others are. Everyone will have their reasons for their choices, and bear in mind that family responsibilities may well be among those reasons.

The Chron adds a few tidbits.

Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, asked [Speaker Dade] Phelan on the floor Tuesday whether Democrats could be removed from committee chair positions for breaking quorum. The speaker said they could not.

Morales, whose gargantuan district spans an area from Eagle Pass nearly to El Paso, said he chose to stay in Texas because he believes it was what his constituents, who tend lean more conservative even among Democrats, wanted from him.

“I felt, and I think what my constituents expected, was for me to be in the Capitol, to make sure that I’m fighting for their rights, and that I fight in opposition to this voter suppression,” he said. “Everyone can fight and they can fight differently. My way of fighting is being here because that’s what my constituents expect.”

Morales said it is clear Democrats would be “steamrolled” when the Republican majority did not give them 24 hours after a House committee hearing this weekend to offer amendments based on the testimony they heard.

“It was just fanfare. They had no intention of actually working and actually coming to play and actually making those modifications necessary to the bill,” he said. “ That is why Democratic leadership decided to take the actions that they did.”

Morales said he expects that Phelan will allow members who ask permission to be excused to leave the chamber on an individual basis. He’ll need to do so to be at work at his day job as a city attorney on Tuesday night.

The process of asking for permission to leave the chamber will likely be repeated every day.

Troopers will now go to the missing members’ homes in their districts and in Austin, and places of work and family and friends’ houses, Morales said.

The Texas Senate, meanwhile, had a quorum of 22 members and was expected to debate its version of the voting bill later Tuesday.

The home visits were a part of the 2003 walkouts as well. You never know, someone might try to sneak home for some reason.

The bit about the Senate having a quorum feels a little surprising even though it obviously isn’t. I don’t know how much incentive Senate Dems have to do anything other than screw around and try to make trouble as they can. As for the likely death of other bills, well, that was priced into the decision to break quorum.

Bills to restrict pretrial release from jail, ban critical race theory in schools and prohibit transgender public school students from competing on teams that correspond with their gender identity were up in the air after dozens of Democratic lawmakers chartered flights to Washington, D.C. But their departure also left in jeopardy more widely-supported measures, like giving more money to retired teachers and restoring vetoed funding for more than 2,100 legislative employees who could potentially go without paychecks starting in September.

[…]

Beside bills on voting and bail, other Republican priorities that are now in danger during Abbott’s 30-day session include efforts to stop social media companies from blocking users for their viewpoints, limiting pill-induced abortions and adding money for policing efforts at the Texas-Mexico border. But the governor also tagged lawmakers to tackle less partisan issues — like adding funds for foster care, property-tax relief and retired teachers. On Monday, he slammed Democrats for leaving those on the table.

One piece of legislation would provide what is known as a “13th check” to retired teachers across Texas. The bills would direct the Teacher Retirement System of Texas to distribute a one-time supplemental payment of up to $2,400 by January of next year.

Committees in the House and Senate unanimously advanced the legislation Friday in some of the earliest committee votes of the special session.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said its members “desperately need help,” especially after the economic stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think there are mixed feelings,” Lee said of the potential demise of the 13th check proposal due to Democrats leaving the state. “I think that educators care about voting rights, educators care about the truth, they care about working together and compromising and listening — so that’s what they hope both sides of this policy spectrum will ultimately yield, that people will work together.”

As far as legislative employees — who earn a median salary of $52,000 per year — some staffers and a legal representative said there may be other ways to pay the employees of elected officials and those who help all lawmakers write bill drafts and provide cost estimates for legislation.

Lawmakers could potentially roll over money from the current fiscal year, if they have any, to pay their staffers. Or the Texas Supreme Court may rule in favor of the employees and House Democrats in a lawsuit arguing Abbott’s veto was a gubernatorial overreach. And Abbott has used his emergency power to move money around before, as he did by directing the transfer of $250 million from Texas prisons to a border wall down payment.

For Odus Evbagharu, chief of staff to state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, the onus to restore his and his colleagues’ wages is on Abbott.

“I don’t believe it’s on the House Democratic Caucus to answer for that. I think that’s going to be an answer that Governor Abbott’s gonna have to answer himself,” Evbagharu said. “My best guess is you hope he doesn’t further punish staff for decisions that lawmakers are making.”

Most of these bills are garbage, and their death (however fleeting) is a bonus as far as Dems are concerned. The legislative funding issue is entirely on Abbott for his temper-tantrum veto, and I hadn’t even thought about him using emergency powers to override himself. That’s if the Supreme Court doesn’t settle this, AS THEY SHOULD. The extra paycheck for teachers is a genuine shame, but it could be handled in any subsequent special session.

Again I want to emphasize, Greg Abbott has the primary responsibility here. He pushed these divisive, red meat issues, he called the special session to try again on the ones that failed, and he broke all precedent by vetoing the legislative funding. This is his mess.

One thing, though, seems clear: this comes at a very bad time for Governor Greg Abbott, who was already having a pretty bad week. Abbott is facing, so far, three challengers to his right in the Republican primary for governor. The charge from his Republican opponents is that he’s feckless and weak. The quorum break, which is designed to deny passage of one of his priority pieces of legislation, fits neatly into a narrative that he is getting outfoxed by an ostensibly powerless Democratic opposition. That the narrative is largely untrue—Democrats certainly believe they got the shaft this session—doesn’t matter much.

If the crisis resolves by offering concessions to the exiled Democrats, or otherwise weakening the bill, Abbott will catch hell. The best case for him is to “break” the Democrats and win the fight, but taking a hard line could also prolong the crisis. At first, messaging from his camp was uncharacteristically soft, perhaps because it’s not clear what he could say. In a statement Monday, Abbott said Democratic absences were standing in the way of “property tax relief” and other issues, a sign that the governor’s office was uncomfortable centering the election bill that’s the problem here. On Tuesday, he started talking tough, threatening them with arrest and “cabining” in the Capitol if they return to Texas, but both those threats reflect his underlying powerlessness. The main talking point so far, at least on social media, is that the Democrats brought beer with them.

[…]

Abbott’s predicament is one he seems uniquely unfit to solve. Unlike his predecessor, Rick Perry, he has never had much in the way of personal relationships with lawmakers. He has no credibility with Democrats to coax them back. But even Republican legislators don’t trust him very much. Abbott did not help the situation with his decision after Democrats walked out on the last day of the regular session to veto funding for the Legislature in retribution. He is holding Republican staffers and state employees hostage in order to coerce Democrats back to the chamber. That may make Abbott look “tough,” but hurting your allies to spite your enemies isn’t sensible politics.

The one thing Abbott does have going for him here is that the Dems will eventually come back, one way or another, and he will always have to call at least one more special session to deal with redistricting. He could just decide to wait and let the Dems figure out what they’re doing and mostly ignore them until they return. I don’t think he’ll do that, but he does do best when he mostly stays out of sight.

Whatever Abbott does or doesn’t do, things are happening in the Senate.

As Democrats fled the state to avoid voting on a GOP priority elections bill that would restrict voting rights in the state, the Texas Senate approved the bill Tuesday with a party-line vote of 18-4.

[…]

[Bill author Sen. Bryan] Hughes amended the bill to drop requirements for curbside voting that troubled advocates for people with disabilities. The original version of the bill required any person other than the voter using curbside voting to leave the car while the voter was casting their ballot.

Hughes removed that provision to “avoid confusion and not create hardship for anyone with a disability.”

Another amendment by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was intended to bring the bill into compliance with federal laws on voter assistance. It removed provisions from the bill that required people assisting voters to specify under oath how they were providing assistance to a voter and that they were doing so because the voter had a disability.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, also amended the bill to allow for tents to be used as temporary polling places if a regular polling place sustained physical damage that rendered it unusable. The permission would only grant the temporary permission for one election and would have to be approved by a county commissioners court.

Another amendment by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, required poll watchers to be provided training manuals to educate them about their duties.

Note that eight Senate Democrats are also in DC, with a ninth on the way. That’s not enough to break quorum in the Senate, so on they go with that wretched business.

Meanwhile, what are the Dems trying to accomplish? I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with that other Senate.

At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, DC, the group of Democrats specifically called on Biden and Congress to demonstrate “the same courage” they had shown by traveling to the nation’s capital during a special legislative session that had been called by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has since threatened to arrest the more than 50 Democrats who fled. As they did in a statement confirming their plans to boycott the session before hopping aboard two private planes on Monday, the group once again hailed both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act as examples of model legislation for protecting voting rights at the federal level and implored Congress to pass them.

“We were quite literally forced to move and leave the state of Texas,” Texas Rep. Rhetta Bowers said in a press conference flanked by some of her fellow state Democrats. “We also know that we are living right now on borrowed time in Texas. And we can’t stay here indefinitely, to run out the clock, to stop Republican anti-voter bills.” Bowers said that although Texas Democrats would use “everything in our power to fight back,” they ultimately needed Congress to act with the same urgency.

“We are not going to buckle to the ‘big lie’ in the state of Texas—the ‘big lie’ that has resulted in anti-democratic legislation throughout the United States,” Rep. Rafael Anchia added.

[…]

Tuesday’s press conference came hours ahead of President Biden’s much-anticipated speech on voting rights in Philadelphia, where he’ll make a forceful condemnation of Republican efforts to enact voter suppression laws. His message, however, is not expected to include support for ending the Senate’s filibuster rules, which advocates say stand in the way of passing meaningful protections for voting rights.

They did get to meet with numerous key Senators, though not yet the two that hold this legislation in their hands. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci puts it for when and if they do, what the Dems have is an emotional appeal.

The emotional appeal may be the only route left for [Rep. Senfronia] Thompson, her colleagues, and other Democrats who see this moment as a turning point for U.S. democracy. Manchin and Sinema already have all the facts. They’ve shown no willingness to budge. Now, they’ll have to tell a crowd of fugitive Texan legislators singing a civil-rights protest song that their extreme measures to protect the franchise will be for naught.

Like I said yesterday, that is the ultimate grand prize. I hope it has better odds than a Powerball ticket.

Finally, Houston Matters spoke to State Reps. Penny Morales Shaw, who is in DC, and Garnet Coleman, who is not because of health issues, though he is not in Austin. They also spoke to US Rep. Lizzie Fletcher about the subject, for which a YouTube clip is here. And here is the note I think we can all agree it would be best to end on:

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Bad bail bill 2.0

This was also happening over the weekend.

Days into a short legislative session, Texas lawmakers are moving quickly to pass a GOP priority bill that would make it harder for some people who have been arrested but not convicted to bond out of jail without putting up cash.

Legislators in the House and Senate filed matching bills to change state bail practices earlier this week, echoing legislation that failed to pass in the regular session. On Saturday, committees in both chambers approved the bills and sent them to the full chambers after nearly three hours of debate in the Senate and nine hours in the House.

The sweeping bail legislation would change how and if people can be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved, while they are still legally presumed innocent. The bill would ban the release of those accused of violent crimes unless they had enough cash, as well as restrict charitable groups’ ability to pay to get people out of jail.

While the two Democrats on the Senate committee supported Senate Bill 6, House Democrats down the hall spoke out strongly against the identical House Bill 2, arguing it would lead to mass detention disproportionately affecting people of color, and it would create an overreliance on money in Texas’ pretrial system that is unfair to people who are poor. Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have a Republican majority.

During the hearings, the Republican bill authors, crime victims and their supporters argued new bail laws are needed to keep dangerous people behind bars before their trials, pointing to rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants accused of violent crimes having been released from jail on bond and then accused of new crimes.

Bill supporters have also fought against the increase in courts releasing defendants on personal bonds, which don’t require them to have cash to get out of jail but can include restrictions like GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug testing.

“SB 6 is legislation which is really a direct response to the increase in violent and habitual offenders being released on personal bonds along with low-cash bonds,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and author of the bill said Saturday. “We have failed our communities, we have failed our citizens, definitely we have failed the victims, and it’s time to do something about it.”

House Democrats and civil rights advocates opposing the legislation took aim at the bills’ continued reliance on cash bail, noting that it primarily penalizes low-income people.

“What does ability to post a cash bond, how does that make a community safe?” questioned state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “The bill pushes more people into the cash bail system by precluding their ability to have a personal bond in a laundry list of situations.”

See here and here for my blogging about this from the regular session. Note that these hearings were held before the voter suppression bill hearings, which is one reason why those went so late – they started late, too. You should also read Scott Henson’s testimony before the committee, in which he suggests that this will have a big negative effect on rural counties. You know how I feel about this, and you also know that if the Republican majority is determined to pass this, they can and they will. So let me remind you of this:

For years, civil rights groups and federal courts nationwide and in Texas have scrutinized bail systems’ reliance on cash. In Harris and Dallas counties, federal courts ordered changes to bail practices ruled unconstitutional because they led to the systematic detention of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime simply because they were poor.

In an ongoing federal lawsuit in Houston, civil rights attorneys pointed to the case of Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old man who caught the coronavirus in the Harris County jail and died. He’d been kept in jail for months, accused of stealing lawn equipment and meat from a garage. If he’d been able to pay about $100, he could have walked out of jail shortly after his arrest.

Whatever gets passed here is going to wind up in the federal courts, and the state is likely to lose. Not that the Republicans are concerned about that – these bills are about primaries, not policies. This whole session, and most of the regular session, were about primaries. I’m sure you can guess what my prescription for getting less of this in the future is.

Here’s your special session agenda

They call this “red meat”, but it’s really just bullshit.

Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the agenda for the special legislative session that begins Thursday, asking lawmakers to prioritize 11 issues that largely appeal to conservatives who wanted more out of the regular session.

The announcement of the agenda came just over 24 hours before lawmakers are set to reconvene in Austin.

The agenda includes Abbott’s priority bills related to overhauling Texas elections and the bail system, as well as pushing back against social media “censorship” of Texans and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Those issues were anticipated after they did not pass during the regular session and Abbott faced pressure to revive them or had already committed to bringing them back.

[…]

The special session agenda also includes funding for the legislative branch, which Abbott vetoed last month. He did so after House Democrats staged a walkout in the final hours of the regular session that killed the priority elections bill. The inclusion of the legislative funding raises the possibility that lawmakers could restore paychecks for their staff — and other staff at the Capitol — before the next fiscal year begins on Sept. 1. More than 2,000 staffers are affected by the veto of the Legislative funding, which Democrats have called an executive overreach of power.

Late last month, House Democrats and legislative staffers asked the state Supreme Court to override it. The court had not ruled in the case yet.

The Democrats’ walkout prompted a flood of national attention, and now the minority members must decide how to try to derail it in the special session with their staff pay on the line. Republicans also have their work cut out for them in the special session, faced with preventing another embarrassing defeat of the elections bill and remedying two provisions they claimed after the regular session were mistakes.

The special session is set to start at 10 a.m. Thursday and could last up to 30 days, with the potential for Abbott to add more items as it proceeds. It is one of at least two special sessions expected this year, with a fall special session coming to address redistricting and the spending of billions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Abbott’s agenda for the first special session notably does not include anything about the state’s electric grid, which was exposed as deeply vulnerable during a deadly winter weather storm in February that left millions of Texans without power. Lawmakers made some progress in preventing another disaster during the regular session, but experts — as well as Patrick — have said there is more to do. Last month, calls for the Legislature to take further action to fix the power grid were renewed when grid officials asked Texans to conserve energy.

Despite Abbott’s recent claim that grid is better than ever, he sent a letter Tuesday to the state’s electricity regulators outlining a number of steps he would like them to take to “improve electric reliability.” But it appears Abbott does not want to reopen legislative debate on the issue for now.

Just to recap, I continue to expect the Supreme Court to delay and hope the legislative budget veto issue becomes moot. I don’t think there’s much if anything that Democratic legislators can do to stop any of these bills if Republicans are determined to pass them – it’s not out of the question that on some of them the Republicans are not sufficiently unified – so the best thing to do is to try to at least make sure everything has a real committee hearing first. Finally, I’m not surprised that Abbott has no interest in revisiting the power grid, not when he’s already staked his claim on everything being just fine now. The other piece of business for the Dems is to hammer this point over and over again, until it seeps into the public consciousness. Good luck, y’all. This is going to suck. The Chron has more.

They’re coming back

Brace yourselves.

Gov. Greg Abbott has set a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 8, his office announced Tuesday.

Abbott’s office did not specify what legislative priorities will be included on the special session agenda and said in an advisory that such items “will be announced prior to the convening of the special session.”

Abbott has already said that he plans to ask state lawmakers to work on two priority elections and bail bills that died in the final hours of the regular legislative session after House Democrats walked out of the chamber. More recently, Abbott has said the agenda for the Legislature’s overtime round will also include further restricting in schools the teaching of critical race theory, which refers to an academic discipline that explores the role racism plays in institutions and structures of governance.

The GOP priority elections bill, known during the regular session as Senate Bill 7, was a sweeping piece of legislation that would have created new limitations to early voting hours and curbed local voting options like drive-thru voting, among other things.

It’s unclear what tweaks, if any, will be made to the bill during a special session. After the Legislature adjourned in May, some Republicans said they planned to change at least one controversial provision in the bill that dealt with the window for early voting on Sundays. The last-minute addition to the bill had raised concerns that it would harm get-out-the-vote efforts by Black churches.

Abbott’s other priority legislation that died, known as House Bill 20 during the regular session, would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash. That bill was also killed after House Democrats broke quorum to block passage of SB 7.

Lawmakers were already expected to return to the Legislature this calendar year for a special session focused on redrawing the state’s political maps and doling out billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Abbott has said that special session will happen sometime in September or October.

We knew this was coming, and we knew that SB7 in some form would be the main item of interest. I don’t know as I write this if the usual suspects in the US Senate will get their shit together and pass a federal voting rights bill that may include some form of preclearance, but it is very much in the political interests of Texas Republicans to pass SB7 before that happens. They definitely have the advantage of being able to move more quickly, but that could at least theoretically end at any time. For sure, they wouldn’t want to wait until the redistricting session for that.

One presumes that the restoration of legislative funding that was vetoed by Abbott will be addressed. I hope that this announcement spurs on the advance of any litigation over that veto, if indeed there was litigation in the works. I Am Not A Lawyer, but I’d bet that the Texas Supreme Court would be delighted to dismiss any such lawsuit on the grounds that it is moot if that matter has been resolved legislatively by the time they have it dumped on them. As to what else may be on the call, we’ll have to wait and see. For sure, every wingnut who didn’t get their pet bill passed will ask for it to be added. As long as the Lege remains in session, Abbott can add more items as he sees fit.

Which leads to another thing to consider:

Another question hanging over state lawmakers is whether Democrats plan to again break quorum to prevent the passage of an elections bill during a special session. A number of House Democrats have said that all tools are on the table with regards to a special session strategy, including potentially leaving the state to help block the legislation.

“It’s no secret that that’s something that’s been effective in the past,” state Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Dallas Democrat who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, during an interview last week on CNN.

I think another Killer Ds scenario is unlikely, but who knows? As with the walkout that led to the quorum break in May, we won’t know till it happens. For what it’s worth, this was Rep. Anchia’s initial reaction to the news on Twitter:

Make of that what you will.

Republican bail reform bill passes House

Meh.

Rep. Andrew Murr

The Texas House on Tuesday passed a bill to alter the way criminal defendants can be released from jail before trial. The priority legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.

House members approved House Bill 20 after significant changes — largely by the bill’s author — were made on the floor Monday.

“The goal today is to strike a balance in which we provide … credible information to our trained magistrates so that they can determine that those that are low risk have a chance to get out while those who are higher risk, with a violent offense or a violent criminal history, they don’t easily pay and immediately walk on the street the next day and do something else that harms us,” state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the bill, said Monday.

Named the Damon Allen Act after a slain state trooper, HB 20 was deemed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott at the beginning of the legislative session after similar legislation failed in 2019. The suspect in Allen’s shooting death during a 2017 traffic stop was out of jail on cash bail at the time.

After tentatively approving the bill Monday, the House finally passed HB 20 on a 98-to-46 vote Tuesday. It is now headed to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill which varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 since has stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release from jail a defendant who is legally presumed innocent while ensuring the person comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is currently based on a dollar amount.

The cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocates who argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

See here for the background. As this Chron editorial notes, HB20 is better than SB21 but still falls short because of its prioritization of cash bail. A fair and just system does not determine who gets to go home and who gets to stay locked up for weeks or months before even going on trial based on ability to pay. As Grits noted a month ago, any bail-related bill that has Greg Abbott’s support is highly unlikely to be upheld by the federal courts going forward. As such, the best move is to vote against HB20 and SB21, and wait for further direction from the Fifth Circuit.

Republicans take aim at bail reform

Lots of bad ideas in here.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence held their first hearing this week over Senate Bill 21, a controversial bail reform bill backed by Republicans.

The purpose of the bill according to its author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is to prevent repeat violent offenders from committing new crimes after being released on personal bond. A personal bond is an agreement to appear in court that allows a defendant to be released without any financial obligation, unlike a cash bond or a surety bond with a bail company.

Opponents who testified against the legislation Thursday warned that language of the bill goes much further than simply attempting to keep violent criminals locked up.

“This is a work in progress, I know this bill is not perfect, I know it’s not ready to be passed,” Huffman, who chairs the committee said at the beginning of the hearing.

Under the text of the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have recently failed to appear in court for another offense, if they have been charged with any other crime after being released on bond, or if they have been recently convicted of a felony, Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, prostitution and many other non-violent offenses.

To be clear, so-called violent repeat offenders would still be able to be bailed out of jail, just not on personal bond, which waives the financial obligation meant to incentive someone to appear in court.

[…]

Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14, testified against the bill calling it an “overreach” and a return to the bad old days.

Fields said he was an original defendant in the O’Donnell lawsuit, the major lawsuit that was filed against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system and which ended in a settlement that allowed for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants.

“I switched from my position of opposition to the O’Donnell lawsuit to agreeing with it, I was only one of two judges who did,” Fields said.

He said that the 72 homicides in Harris County committed by people out on bond in 2020 — a figure cited by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg earlier in her testimony in support of the bill — were largely done by defendants with surety bond, or bonds posted by a bail bond company.

“I learned after 20 years of being a Republican judge in Harris County, that money does not make us safer,” Fields said. “Conditions make us safer. Assessment makes us safer. Using smarter strategies to keep people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated, and those who don’t out. That’s what makes us safer.”

Fields said the conflation with misdemeanor and felony cases had led to legislation like SB 21 that would cast a broad net hurting taxpayers and slowing the work of criminal courts.

Emily Garrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and one of the groups involved in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit, said SB 21 would allow people who don’t have money to stay in jail and those who do to be released from jail despite having similar charges — a violation of the decision by federal judges that ruled Harris County’s wealth-based pre-trial detention system to be unconstitutional for that very reason.

Another aspect of SB 21 grilled during the hearing was the bill’s restrictions on charitable bail organizations, or groups (often churches or advocacy groups) that organize bail funds to help defendants who could otherwise not pay for their release. Among other things, the bill would only allow charitable bail organizations to pay bail bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanors and would restrict them from paying no more than $2,000 for each defendant they want to help.

This Trib story from earlier in March covered a lot of this ground already, while Grits has noted that much of this bill is or will be in conflict with federal court rulings. This is a classic “solution in search of a problem” situation, with a side order of retaliation against Harris County and its Democratic judiciary. It’s very likely that this bill will evolve before it comes to a vote, but it’s much less likely that it will transform into something productive.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

District court judges to be removed from the felony bail lawsuit case

Hopefully, this brings us a step closer to settling the case.

Harris County’s 23 felony judges are no longer being sued over uneven bail practices that plaintiffs say discriminate against poor defendants. The civil rights lawsuit against the county and its reform-minded sheriff will move forward without them.

The federal judge presiding over Russell v. Harris County ruled Wednesday that once the bulk of the state district judges withdraw an appeal of one of her earlier rulings, they will be automatically removed as defendants in the case.

Lawyers for poor defendants say the mechanics of who is listed as a party will not prevent them from pursuing their goal of full adversarial bail hearings. The judges were not part of the original lawsuit, but were added at Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s request. Their removal was precipitated by an appellate court ruling in a similar challenge to the bail system in Dallas County, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit found the judges were cloaked by immunity and should therefore be excluded from the Dallas lawsuit.

See here for the background. If as that previous story suggests Ken Paxton and the AG’s office are also removed from the case, that should further the likelihood of a settlement. It also may mean I don’t have to be mad at the district court judges who were being represented by Paxton, though that will depend on how things go from here. And for those of you who insist that changing the existing policies will lead to mayhem in the streets, I will remind you that many of the US Capitol insurrectionists, who actually caused mayhem in the streets and elsewhere, as well as three-time murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, are now out on bail. It’s not a question of “safety”, it’s a question of who has privilege and who does not.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

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.