After defeating Sheriff Ron Hickman in the election this month, Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez is already sticking his nose in Hickman’s official business — mainly, the lawsuit filed against him.
Hickman, along with the county, all the county judges and five bail hearing officers, has been sued for participating in what a national civil rights group calls an unconstitutional bail system. The plaintiffs, Civil Rights Corps, argue that poor people in Harris County are being systematically jailed before trial just because they cannot afford to pay an arbitrary bail amount, unlike wealthier people charged with the same crime.
While Hickman has voiced support for bail reform in the past, he and his lawyers have nonetheless insisted he be dismissed from this lawsuit since he is simply complying with court orders from judges to house these people in the jail. Civil Rights Corps, however, argues that since many of these people are being held unconstitutionally, the sheriff is still liable. And it just so happens that Hickman’s successor agrees.
In an affidavit presented before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in federal court on Monday, Gonzalez called the county’s bail system unconstitutional and asked Rosenthal to keep the sheriff in the lawsuit — essentially encouraging Civil Rights Corps to continue to [sue] the office he will soon inherit.
Gonzalez’s premature involvement places the Harris County Attorney’s Office and its hired private attorneys in a somewhat awkward position: Once Gonzalez assumes office, county attorneys will be representing a public official whose views are seriously at odds with their entire argument — that nothing is legally wrong with the county’s bail system.
While the county raised ethical concerns in court yesterday about Gonzalez filing an affidavit apparently in support of the party that is suing him, Judge Rosenthal did not find any problems with it. In fact, one attorney from the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey, which is a plaintiff along with Civil Rights Corps, argued that the greater ethical concern was Gonzalez being “represented” by people who do not represent his views.
Judge Rosenthal is expected to decide soon on which parties will remain in the lawsuit.
The county argued Monday that its bail practices are not in violation of the Constitution since defendants see a magistrate within 48 hours (most of the time). And that magistrates, county attorneys said, have the information in front of them to consider a defendant’s ability to pay, as the Constitution requires. Civil Rights Corps lead attorney Alec Karakatsanis, however, repeatedly argued that the county was missing the mark: The point, he argued, is that magistrates systematically choose not to consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail, sending low-level, low-risk defendants to jail instead of giving them a personal bond.
Anthony Wayne Goffney shuffles toward the floor marker where he is told to stand, wearing light blue pants and a smock top, four days after being jailed for trespassing.
A prosecutor rattles off information about his arrest as Goffney, stooped and gray-haired, appearing confused, gazes over his shoulder.
Court records show Goffney has dementia and a history of homelessness, yet his poverty is not discussed as hearing officer Jill Wallace, appearing via a video link, decides whether to jail him or let him go free.
Wallace says, rapid-fire: “Bond is set at $5,000. You’re denied a pretrial release bond.”
Then she adds: “Are you requesting the court to appoint you a lawyer?”
“Who me?” he asks.
“Yeah, you,” she answers.
Then Wallace sends Goffney to jail.
The videotaped encounter – among thousands that occur 24 hours a day at the Harris County courthouse – is among a cache released by the Texas Organizing Project showing what officials say is judicial indifference to a parade of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.
“The elderly man [Goffney] has nobody to speak for him,” said Tarsha Jackson, a TOP organizer. “It’s inhumane and it’s not fair.”
There more, including video, at the story link. I don’t know about you, but that sure doesn’t sound like anything that has to do with “justice” to me. The county is arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because it has made progress in addressing the issues. Judge Lee Rosenthal has said she will make a final determination in January, after the new officeholders have had a chance to get sworn in. We know where Gonzalez stands, and I’ll be shocked if Kim Ogg isn’t there with him. We’ll see what that means for the case.