Lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit accusing Harris County of unfair bail practices that unjustly imprison lower-income inmates are pressing for a swift resolution, and a judge says a ruling in the four-year legal battle will come soon.
U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal heard arguments from attorneys representing Johnnie Ray Pierson, Dwight Russell, Joseph Ortuno, Maurice Wilson and Christopher Clack on whether Harris County officials and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez violated the five men’s and other current and former inmates’ rights by putting them behind bars because they couldn’t afford cash bail.
“In this hearing, it became clear that the judge was mostly trying to clear away some of the procedural obstacles that would prevent her from actually addressing what this case is really about,” Cody Cutting, an attorney with the Civil Rights Corps, said on behalf of the men whom he and the nonprofit have represented since 2019. “People are being jailed because they lack money and no other reason.”
Harris County’s, the State of Texas and Gonzalez’s attorneys argued that the enactment of Senate Bill 6 in September 2021 would make the men’s lawsuit “moot” because of legislation allowing any person, including all prisoners, to be eligible for bail unless denial of bail is “expressly permitted” by the Texas Constitution or by other law. The provision doesn’t apply to capital offenses when the burden of proof is evident.
“What SB6 did is require the use of secured money bail, prohibiting unsecured bonds, for people charged with certain categories of offenses,” Cutting said.
A motion in the felony bail challenge asks Rosenthal to rule in favor of all inmates held at the Harris County Jail because they cannot afford the bail amounts set by the court. Lawyers from the Civil Rights Corps, based in Washington, D.C., also argue that local judges’ practices in felony court are unconstitutional.
The main issue Gonzalez has with the lawsuit is the implementation of the bail practices and whether Rosenthal’s ruling, if in favor of the plaintiffs, will put him in a difficult position in terms of deciding which courts’ orders to comply with, Fogler said.
“The sheriff certainly does not want an overcrowded jail, but that’s what’s happening,” Cutting said. “And what the sheriff has been resisting, is being held responsible for jailing people solely because they lack money.”
See here for the previous update, from over two years ago, and here for a Chron explainer on the lawsuit. This is about felony bail, not misdemeanor, as that issue was settled in 2019 via a different lawsuit. Note that because district court judges are defendants, and district courts are state offices, the Attorney General is defending them, not the County Attorney as was the case with the misdemeanor bail lawsuit. Not sure how much longer we’ll be waiting – that story was from last week, I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. I expect an appeal regardless of the ruling.