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One more judge for bail reform

Once again, credit where credit is due.

A long-serving Harris County Republican judge has broken with 14 Republican colleagues, withdrawing from the county’s appeal in a landmark federal lawsuit challenging its bail system for discriminating against poor, low-level offenders.

Criminal Court-at-Law Judge Mike Fields, who has presided in misdemeanor court since 1999, had a dramatic change of heart this week at a federal court hearing on the bail case, and he now wants the county to put its limited resources into settling the matter.

“If we just talk to one another, if we can just get in the room and talk, maybe we can resolve this issue,” said Fields, 52. “It’s costly on both sides — it costs in terms of human lives and it costs in terms of taxpayer dollars.”

The county has spent more than $5 million defending itself, and has appealed an April 28 ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal that the county bail practices violated the Constitution by setting up a “wealth-based” detention system. The county retained a top-dollar D.C. appellate firm to handle its appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fields said when he saw — during his first visit to the federal courthouse on Tuesday — how many lawyers the county had hired and how many county officials’ time was tied up with the lawsuit, he estimated the two hours for all those people amounted to $60,000.

“Two hours in a courtroom costs more than what the average citizen makes all year. Sixteen judges sitting in a courtroom (together), not doing the work of the people, think about the enormous expense of that,” Fields said.

He added: “We’re fighting about how many people get to stay in jail. I don’t see how anyone can sit in that room and not think maybe we should try another tack.”

Judge Fields had previously expressed concerns about the cost of the lawsuit, so this would be the natural next step. It won’t change anything – the appeal will go on, as all of Fields’ Republican colleagues want it to – but it is the right thing to do. He says he was convinced by Judge Rosenthal’s ruling in the case. Whatever his reason, I applaud his action. May others follow his lead.

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