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Brian Warren

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.