Tensions flared at Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday after new Commissioner Rodney Ellis filed legal papers supporting civil rights groups in their high-profile federal lawsuit against the county and its bail system.
In a rare public argument before dozens of onlookers at the meeting Tuesday, Ellis’ colleagues — all Republicans — took issue with his action, with some calling the move unprecedented and insinuating that the county attorney should consider whether Ellis could be excluded from private discussions about the lawsuit in the future.
“I’m concerned about how this impacts commissioners court, impacts executive sessions,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who represents western and northwestern portions of the county, including Katy and Cypress. “I’ve never been through something like this before.”
The exchange shows how the lawsuit has exposed new fissures in county government. Ellis, a former state senator, says he is making good on a promise to shake up the traditionally quiet, non-combative style of the governing board of the country’s third-largest county, with strategies he says have successfully helped him in a Republican-dominated state Legislature.
After the meeting, Ellis defended his actions, saying he would be prepared to take legal action if he were excluded from executive sessions. Without the lawsuit, he said, the system would not have changed.
“If it were not for politics and pressure, the administrators here in the county would still be administering for decades,” he said.
Ellis’ brief offers to help Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal assess the collateral impact that cash bail has for poor, mentally ill and homeless people and African-Americans — who are jailed at disproportionately greater rates and suffer extreme economic harms when they spend time behind bars.
In addition, the brief says, lengthy jail time impacts their legal prospects and their health. It mentions the example of Sandra Bland, a black motorist arrested in Waller County after a traffic stop, who committed suicide after spending a weekend in jail on a bond she could not afford.
The civil rights groups’ remedy for Harris County is “eminently feasible, cost-efficient, and narrowly-tailored,” and is consistent with the county’s ongoing aims to improve bail practices, the brief says.
See here for the most recent update; we are still waiting for a ruling on an injunction. I get the concerns expressed by Commissioners Radack and Cagle and Judge Emmett. It is undoubtedly a weird place for Commissioners Court to be to not be all rowing in the same direction. Of course, the Sheriff and District Attorney are also in favor of settling the lawsuit and implementing the reforms the plaintiffs are seeking. It’s true that Harris County has been moving in the direction of some of these reforms and that some good has already been done, but it’s also true that the problems have been there for decades, and none of these reforms were put in place before the lawsuit was filed. Given the amount of money that has already been spent by the county defending against the lawsuit and the likelihood of losing, seeking to settle and get to the real work sooner rather than later sure seems like a viable strategy to me. What exactly is it the county is fighting for at this point?