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The felony judges who abused the bail system

Shame on them all.

Three sitting judges and eight former district judges in Harris County were publicly admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in response to complaints that for years they violated state law and judicial cannons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

But the actions this week came too late to affect most jurists’ behavior on the bench. Seven left their district seats last year either because they didn’t run or lost elections. One lost re-election back in 2016.

The misconduct probes of all 11 judges began in February 2018, when the Houston Chronicle obtained copies of memos and notes that showed that for a full decade most of Harris County’s felony court judges had provided different types of written or verbal instructions to the county’s hearing officers to routinely deny no-cash bail to all or most newly-arrested defendants.

The agency’s findings confirm most bans were in effect for years and largely went unnoticed and unchallenged until 2017 when Harris County judges and other officials were civilly sued in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of poor defendants by routinely failing to provide no-cost bail in many misdemeanor as well as felony cases.(The county is now in the process of settling that lawsuit).

In its August disciplinary orders, the commission concluded that through various actions all 11 Harris County district judges willfully violated judicial cannons and also “failed to comply with the law and failed to maintain competence in the law” by instructing hearing officers not to issue personal bonds even though under state law the hearing officers had the authority and duty to do so, the orders say. Under state laws and ethical cannons, the hearing officers are supposed to consider each defendant’s case and circumstances individually.

Let’s be clear here: These judges were found by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct not just to have violated rules of conduct that they are expected to follow, they actually broke the law by systematically denying personal recognizance bonds to poor defendants. This is serious stuff.

You may say “but these are FELONY defendants!” Sure, but it’s still the case that some number of them will never be convicted of a crime. Some of them will agree to a plea deal for a misdemeanor or lesser felony for which the sentence includes no jail time. Some, regardless of how their case gets adjudicated, represent little to no risk to public safety. How big a risk they are to public safety is completely unrelated to how much cash or collateral they can scrape up to buy their way out of jail. Again, Robert Durst got bailed out. There remains a bail lawsuit in Harris County over the practices in the felony courts, and there’s a similar lawsuit in Dallas that’s working its way towards a resolution. Standard practices are going to change, because they have to change.

The judges who were admonished included former longtime Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden, who retired last year after many years presiding over the 209th District Court. The commission found McSpadden had, like many other longtime judges, issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance or PR bond requests from Nov. 20, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2017. McSpadden had previously written a letter to the Houston Chronicle in March 2018 where he admitted that “it is true I have instructed the magistrates not to grant these bonds in our felony cases to all defendants, never specifying a certain race or gender.”

McSpadden told the Chronicle on Thursday that he stands behind his decision to deny PR bonds even if it violated the law.

“I have great respect for the work of the commission. But I still feel the same way. I, as the elected judge, would like to make the decision on free bonds for accused felons rather than turn those important duties over to the magistrates. And it would take one more day to do this,” he said.

[…]

The three active Harris County District Judges who were admonished were: Hazel Jones, of the 174th District Court, Herb Richie of the 337th District Court and George Powell of the 351st District Court.

Michael McSpadden’s first duty as a judge was to follow the law. He did not do that. I don’t give a crap what his feelings were. He failed to do his job, and I am glad he is no longer on the bench.

I am not happy that three Democratic judges were also found to be doing this. All three are up for election next year, and there are no more Republican judges on the district or county courts for Democrats to aim for. But we can still perform upgrades, and these courts are at the front of the line for that. Democrats with a criminal justice background, an interest in becoming a judge, and a commitment to following the law, should look here first.

(Obligatory copy editing nitpick: A “cannon” is a big gun. A “canon” is a fundamental principle or general rule, and is the thing that these judges violated. Spelling counts, y’all.)

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