Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Commissioners Court

A couple of race updates

Josh Wallenstein

The county slate is one step closer to being filled out for 2018, as Josh Wallenstein has announced his intent to run for the HCDE At Large Position 3 Trustee seat that Diane Trautman is giving up to challenge Stan Stanart. I had a brief chat with Wallenstein via Facebook over the weekend, but as you can see there’s not much on his page yet, so as of today I can’t tell you anything more about him than that he is running. Wallenstein joins Lina Hidalgo (County Judge), Trautman (County Clerk), and Marilyn Burgess (District Clerk) on the countywide Democratic slate, which leaves only County Treasurer without a candidate so far. The Treasurer slot pays something like $96K per year, and if we know anything from Orlando Sanchez’s terms in office, there’s plenty of free time to go along with that. If you’re looking for new career opportunities, that may be something to consider. Also needed on the ballot are a candidate for County Commissioner in Precinct 2, and an HCDE Trustee for Position 4, Precinct 4, which is held by appointee Louis Evans. I feel more confident about the first one being filled than the second one, but we’ll see.

Also of interest is Murray Newman’s rundown of the incumbents and candidates for the various Harris County criminal courts. This encompasses the District Courts, which handle felonies, and the County Courts, which are for misdemeanors and the focal point of the ongoing bail practices lawsuit. Several judges are retiring or have already stepped down and been replaced by appointees, and a few others have challengers in the Republican primary. I tend to know the players in the other judicial races, so this was a very useful reference for me.

Finally, as you may have noticed last week, I succeeded in putting together a 2017 Election page for this year’s races. It was a lot less work than it usually is thanks to the lack of city races, but as you know things have been highly out of the ordinary lately. Anyway, if you have any corrections or additions to suggest, please let me know. Thanks.

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”

[…]

Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

Harris County may do Harvey bonds

Turns out Harvey recovery will cost money. Who knew?

A majority of the Harris County Commissioners Court on Wednesday said they would support a large bond issue, perhaps upwards of $1 billion, and a tax increase to pay for it. The bond issue would bolster cash-strapped flood control initiatives, which could include a improvements to waterways and buyouts of properties that repeatedly flood.

After Hurricane Harvey’s widespread devastation and severe floods of the last few years, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, all Republicans, said in interviews Wednesday afternoon that they would favor a bond issue.

A bond proposal and corresponding tax rate increase would have to be approved by voters countywide, after a majority of the five-member Commissioners Court vote in favor of calling the election and placing the proposal on the ballot.

As to how early such an election could be called, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office was reviewing the potential timing of an election.

[…]

Emmett said the bond issue would likely need to be $1 billion at a minimum.

County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said it is not immediately clear how much of a tax rate hike, if any, would be needed to pay for the bonds. If the county issued $1 billion in bonds at once, today, it would need roughly a 2-cent hike in the property tax rate.

I presume it’s too late for this year. so it’s a matter of when this could be done in 2018. The county could easily do this next November, it’s more a question of whether they can get it on the ballot sooner than that if they want to. There will need to be details filled in on what this bond would entail, but it sure seems like a worthwhile thing to do. I mean, if you think repairing the damage and investing in better flood mitigation going forward are worthwhile, that is. Perhaps someone should ask the Harris County Republican Party, which reflexively opposed Mayor Turner’s proposal, saying the city should “follow Harris County’s lead”. One could argue the county is now following the city’s lead. I’d just argue that by taking action, both the city and county are leading. Isn’t that what we want?

Paxton prosecutors to petition CCA

Last chance to get paid.

Best mugshot ever

The state’s highest criminal court will get a chance to decide whether the special prosecutors appointed in the criminal cases against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton can be paid the $300-an-hour rate they were promised.

Kent A. Schaffer, one of the three special prosecutors in Texas v. Paxton, said the trio will file for a writ of mandamus with the Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate the Fifth Court of Appeals decision Monday to void the judge’s order authorizing an approximately $205,000 payment.

“It’s not over yet,” said Schaffer, a partner in Bires Schaffer & DeBorde in Houston.

[…]

Collin County paid the first order issued by Judge George Gallagher of Tarrant County to pay the special prosecutors $254,908 for pretrial work, but county commissioners balked at making the second payment ordered by Gallagher in January. Instead, the commissioners filed for a writ of mandamus to compel the trial court to vacate its order requiring payment.

According to the Fifth Court’s opinion in In Re Collin County, Texas, Commissioners, Rule 4.01B adopted by Collin County’s judges authorizes payments of pro tem attorneys to deviate from the schedule adopted by the judges. The three-judge panel of the Fifth Court, which heard the commissioners’ petition for a writ, noted in its opinion that Rule 4.01B appears to thwart the objective of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 26.05, which requires district judges to adopt a schedule of reasonable fees for appointed attorneys.

See here for the background. After all this time, I confess I’m a little unclear on what happens if the special prosecutors lose. Does this mean they will then have been paid all they’re ever going to be paid, or does it mean their pay will be recalculated and readministered based on a much lower hourly rate? In either case, this is ridiculous and will indeed make it impossible to find qualified special prosecutors in future situations. You know my answer to this – the state should pick up the tab when a state official is involved. That ain’t happening any time soon, so let’s hope the CCA makes it all go away, at least for now.

5th Court of Appeals screws Paxton prosecutors

Ugh.

Best mugshot ever

The prosecutors pursuing charges against Attorney General Ken Paxton haven’t been paid in more than a year and a half — and they will continue to wait on a payday.

On Monday, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas voided a $205,000 invoice dating back to January 2016, saying state laws and local rules did not allow the three special prosecutors to be paid the $300-an-hour rate they were promised.

[…]

[David Feldman, attorney for the special prosecutors,] argued state law and local rules gave Collin County district judges, who decide how much to pay special prosecutors, discretion to stray from fee rules in unusual circumstances. He called it “honorable” that his clients continued to prosecute the case when they hadn’t been paid in 19 months.

But the Dallas court on Monday sided with the commissioners, saying Texas law requires counties to “set both minimum and maximum hourly rates” in these cases. By adopting local rules that allowed them to exceed their own maximum fees, the court said “the judges exceeded their authority.

“The statute does not prevent the judges from taking into consideration the possibility of ‘unusual circumstances’ in setting the range of reasonable fees allowed,” Justice Molly Francis wrote for the court. “But the legislature intended each county to have an agreed framework that sets out the specific range of reasonable fees that could be paid.”

See here and here for some background. I will say again, this basically amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card for state officials who are accused of crimes in their home counties. The state should be responsible for the cost of such prosecutions, wherever they occur, and they should cover the going pay rate for attorneys who are qualified to handle a high-profile case. It’s the only way to avoid these shenanigans.

July campaign finance reports – Harris County candidates

The Harris County situation for candidates and campaign finance reports is a bit complicated. Take a look at my January summary and the reports and data that I’ve found for July, and we’ll discuss what it all means on the other side.

Ed Emmett

Jack Morman
Jack Cagle

Stan Stanart
Chris Daniel

Diane Trautman

David Patronella
George Risner
Don Coffey
Lucia Bates
Laryssa Korduba Hrncir
Daryl Smith
Jeff Williams
Armando Rodriguez
Zinetta Burney
Louie Ditta


Name        Raised    Spent     Loans     On Hand
=================================================
Emmett     472,172   99,684         0     551,875

Morman     635,050   98,611     44,339  2,261,453
Cagle      561,350  197,375          0  1,008,707

Stanart     49,100   10,124     20,000     69,384
Daniel      49,350   51,681     55,000     25,359
Sanchez

Trautman    15,251    2,978          0     18,009
Evans
Lee

Patronella  20,215    5,075          0
Risner       2,550    7,202          0     81,053
Coffey         200    7,214          0     57,694
Bates (*)      850      575          0        567
Korduba (R) 24,870    5,085          0     33,466
Smith (**)       0      300          0          0
Williams (R)     0        0     60,000     13,396
Rodriguez        0        0          0      2,219
Burney           0        0          0        902
Ditta (R)        0    1,907      2,000     17,006

Let’s start with what isn’t there. I don’t see a report as yet for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez, nor do I see one for HCDE Trustees Louis Evans (Position 4, Precinct 3) and Erica Lee (Position 6, Precinct 1). Diane Trautman (Position 3, At Large) has a report, but she is running for County Clerk, so as yet there are no candidates of which I am aware for the position she is vacating. Finding Louis Evans’ name among the list of Trustees was a bit of a surprise, since he had not been elected to that position in 2012. He was appointed to the seat in November of 2015 to replace Kay Smith, who stepped down to run in the Republican primary for HD130. I just missed that announcement, so my bad there. Evans as noted in the linked release, was Smith’s predecessor in that position, serving the six year term from 2007 to 2013. He was not on the ballot for the GOP primary in 2012, so if he runs for another term this would be the first time he has faced voters since 2006.

County Judge Ed Emmett does not have an opponent yet, as far as I can tell. There’s a bit of confusion because three people – Christopher Diaz, Shannon Baldwin, and LaShawn Williams – have filed requests for authorization forms for electronic filing, with County Judge as the office they plan to seek. At least two of these people are not running for County Judge, however. Williams appears to be a candidate for Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 3, and has filed a finance report listing that office as the one she seeks. She has also filed a report for the office of County Judge. I presume the latter is an error, but they both have different numbers in them, so who knows? Baldwin’s case appears to be more clear, as she has a Facebook page for her candidacy for County Criminal Court #4, for which she has filed a finance report, again with the correct office listed. As for Diaz, I have no idea. I don’t think he is the Precinct 2 Constable Chris Diaz. Here’s the Christopher Diaz County Judge RFA, and the Constable Chris Diaz finance report. You tell me.

Jack Morman is clearly aware of his status as biggest electoral target of the year. He’s got plenty of money available to him for his race, whoever he winds up running against. Cagle has only the primary to worry about, as his precinct is highly unlikely to be competitive in November. The other countywide offices generally don’t draw much money to their races. I suppose that may change this year, especially in the County Clerk’s race, but first we’re going to need some candidates.

Constables were elected last year, as were Justices of the Peace in Place 1, so what we have on the ballot this time are the JPs in Place 2. According to the listing of judicial candidates that we got at the June CEC meeting, David Patronella and Zinetta Burney have primary opponents, but neither of them have July finance reports on file. Rodrick Rogers, who is listed as a candidates against Republican Jeff Williams in Precinct 5, also has no report. Lucia Bates is a Democrat running in the primary against Don Coffey, while Daryl Smith is a Democrat running against Repubican incumbent Laryssa Korduba Hrncir, who at last report was the last holdout on performing weddings post-Obergefell. I do not know if there has been any change in that status. Whatever the case, there’s not a lot of fundraising in these races.

So that’s what I know for now. It’s possible some of the non-filers will have reports up later, I do see that sometimes. For sure, we should expect to hear of some candidates in the places where we currently have none. If you’ve got some news on that score, please let us know.

Fort Bend DA to retire

The end of an era, and an opportunity for change.

Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey announced Friday that he will not seek re-election, marking an end to what will be 26 years in office, according to a news release.

Healey said he will retire at the end of his term in 2018 to spend time with his wife. He will be a few weeks shy of 64, he said in an interview.

“I’ve often said retirement is too often wasted on the elderly,” he said. “There’s a whole other phase of life that I want to be able to enjoy with my family.”

Healey first took office by judicial appointment Nov. 18, 1992, when Fort Bend County was a far cry from the bustling county it has become. He presided over the growth of the office from what was then 16 prosecutors to what is now 64, according to the release.

[…]

Healey won in 2014 with 58 percent of the vote. His term will end Dec. 31, 2018.

First, let me say that I wish DA Healy well in his retirement. From a quality of life perspective, I think he has the right idea. Politically speaking, this is a big opportunity for Democrats in Fort Bend, as it is surely easier to win an open seat rather than knock off an incumbent with no obvious demerits. Finding a candidate would be the first order of business; former two-term County Commissioner Richard Morrison comes to my mind, but I’m just speculating idly. Fort Bend Democrats have other races of interest next year – HD26, Commissioners Court Precinct 4, the other countywide offices; big parts of SD17 and CD22 are also in Fort Bend – but this is a definite prize. I’m sure it will draw serious interest.

New county risk assessment system coming

We’ve been waiting.

Harris County officials on Tuesday touted their revamped strategy for deciding whether tens-of-thousands of individuals should be jailed before their criminal trials, a process that critics and a federal judge say disproportionately affects the poor who are unable to come up with the money to make bail.

On July 29, the county plans to implement the “public safety assessment,” to grade individuals arrested in Harris County each year on their risk of re-offending, committing a violent crime or failing to show up for court.

The tool is intended to recommend to judges and hearing officers that low-risk individuals – both felony and misdemeanor – be let out of jail on personal bonds. Higher-risk individuals would be required to post bail according to an established bail schedule, as well as face additional supervision such as round-the-clock monitoring or regular check-ins with probation officers.

“This is the biggest change in criminal justice reform that Harris County has ever seen,” said Kelvin Banks, the county’s director of pretrial services.

[…]

[Federal judge Lee] Rosenthal weighed in on the county’s new risk assessment tool earlier this month, writing that the new rules “do not change much.”

The system imposes a fee schedule ranging from $500 to $5,000 for misdemeanors and recommends up-front payment from most people.

“Like the old schedule … secured money bail is the standard recommendation for most categories of misdemeanor arrestees,” the judge wrote. “The approved changes are hardly different.”

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, said the risk assessment does not eliminate the use of a bail schedule, and despite its goal, will continue to ensure that those without means will be routinely jailed.

“It doesn’t solve the constitutional problem,” Rossi said.

See here and here for some background. I hope this helps, but it doesn’t sound like it moves us closer to a resolution. Maybe it will at least keep a few people out of jail who don’t need to be there. In the meantime, we wait for the appeals process to play out.

Was the Harris County election system hacked?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

Despite widespread alarm over the breadth of Russian cyber attacks on state and local election systems last year, including revelations of Dallas County being targeted, Harris County officials are refusing to say whether hackers similarly took aim at the nation’s third-largest county.

Releasing information on whether Harris County election systems saw attacks from Russian hackers would threaten the county’s cyber security by emboldening hackers to further target local systems, county officials said this week.

The county’s argument was dismissed by experts, who said the secrecy is unnecessary, and could actually downplay the seriousness of the threat and the resources needed to combat it.

“There’s this concept in security called ‘security through obscurity,’ sort of, if they don’t know about it they won’t come after it,” said Pamela Smith, a consultant at Verified Voting, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes voting integrity. “But to really have robust security, you want people to be able to know that it’s there … I think what the public wants to know is that you’re aware of the threat and you’re taking steps to mitigate.”

Bruce High, the chief information officer and executive director of the county’s Central Technology Services, said Harris County overall sees on average more than a million hack attempts every day. He even acknowledged a recent “spike” in attempts to hack Harris County servers from outside of America’s borders.

[…]

Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor and scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, who has testified before Congress about the cyber security threat to elections, said that to an advanced threat like Russia, there likely are no secrets about Harris County elections.

Asked if Harris County had been targeted in a similar manner as Dallas County, High said the county had not received a list of IP addresses from the Department of Homeland Security. He added that both the FBI and the Homeland Security department will flag Harris County when they have concerns about specific IP addresses.

High did not respond to questions seeking details on how often such concerns are brought up, how big of a “spike” in hacking attempts the county was experiencing and over what period of time, whether that spike was election-related or which systems had been targeted.

Wallach said he was concerned about the ability of many local jurisdictions, including Harris County, to protect against a targeted threat from an advanced adversary like Russia. He said he believed it was probable that Russia had at least targeted Harris County servers, but also that in many cases, attackers are so sophisticated that local officials would not even know that their systems had been breached.

“The category of adversary we’re facing now is not something that Harris County government is equipped to deal with,” Wallach said.

I work in IT security and had a few thoughts about this, but then I saw that Dan wrote this piece with a much deeper analysis than I had done, and I figured it was better to outsource this to him.

Computer security experts who deal with nation-state activities use the term “advanced persistent threats” (APT) as a shorthand to indicate that our adversaries have significant capabilities, including both engineering resources and spycraft, to quietly break into our computers, spread out across our networks, and avoid detection. It’s common for APT attacks to last for months to years prior to detection.

Given these threats, we need to conduct a serious analysis of where our elections stand. Harris County’s Hart InterCivic eSlate voting machines, for example, haven’t had any major security updates following studies conducted a decade ago by the states of California and Ohio. (I was part of the California effort.) In short, an attacker need only tamper with a single voting machine. After that, the infection can spread “virally” to every machine in the county.

Compounding the problem, all of our vote-tabulating systems are running Windows 2000, for which Microsoft dropped all software support, including security patches, seven years ago.

In the lead-up to the 2018 election, it may be financially infeasible for a complete replacement of our voting machines. We only just recently purchased our voting machines after a 2010 warehouse fire destroyed our original fleet of eSlate machines, so the funds aren’t likely to be available so soon for replacements.

What’s clearly necessary, since we know the Russians targeted voter registration systems, is a major upgrade to the way our voter registration systems are managed. A redesigned system would still, by necessity, require Internet connections so voters can verify their correct polling places, see sample ballots, and so forth. Most notably, during our early voting period, we need an online database to track which voters have cast ballots.

A modern design, intended to operate even if the entire Internet failed while the election was ongoing, would involve making local copies of the database at every voting center. Unsurprisingly, the needs of Harris County are essentially the same as the needs for every other county in our state, suggesting that a state-level procurement could be an efficient way to improve the voter registration security for every county’s voters.

Another short-term recommendation will be for Harris County to upgrade its systems to the latest versions of Microsoft’s operating systems, even though this will require a waiver from Texas’s election certification requirements. Even though our vote tabulation systems are hopefully never connected to the Internet, they are nonetheless unacceptably weak in the present threat environment.

Likewise, Harris County needs to hire a professional security “penetration testing” firm to identify other soft points in its infrastructure and prioritize repairs; such consultants need to be brought in on a regular basis for check-up exams. We also need forensic security auditors to do a deep dive into our county’s existing systems to make sure they’re as clean as we hope them to be. This isn’t just a matter of running some anti-virus scanner, since APT adversaries use tricks that automated scanners won’t detect.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. At the very least, I hope we can all agree that any system that is still using Windows 2000 (!!!) needs to be upgraded or replaced. Dan (who as you know is a friend of mine) puts in a plug for the STAR-Vote system that he helped design, and it’s definitely something the county and the state should consider. I just hope we take this seriously before something bad happens.

UPDATE: Hector DeLeon, the Director of Communications and Voter Outreach for the County Clerk, has emailed me to say that the county tabulation system is running on Windows 7, not Windows 2000 as stated in Wallach’s op-ed. He says they have made this same correction to the Chronicle as well. My apologies for the confusion.

Harris County Attorney files amicus brief in SB4 lawsuit

Good.

Last week, Harris County Commissioners Court opted not to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial “sanctuary cities” law as unconstitutional.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, however, has filed a brief asking a federal court to halt its implementation on Sept. 1.

“S.B. 4 will do irreparable damage to this State’s child welfare process, place county attorneys charged with representing DFPS in an irreconcilable conflict, and do further trauma to children who have been placed in the State’s care. Further, there is no legitimate state purpose in treating children who have an unauthorized immigrant parent or other potential care giver differently in child welfare cases,” states Ryan’s brief, which was filed this month in federal court.

[…]

Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said that come Sept 1., with no injunction stopping SB4’s implementation, the county attorney’s office does not know how it will handle certain child welfare cases.

“That’s an ethical hell that we do not want to experience, and that’s why Vince Ryan has asked the federal court for guidance,” O’ Rourke said.

You can see the specific objections in the story. This is not as good as if Commissioners Court had voted to join the litigation, but it’s something. In the meantime, Cameron County and the city of Laredo have joined the plaintiffs, and there are a couple of bills to repeal SB4 that have been filed for the special session, though of course neither of them will get anywhere. It’s still important to make the stand, and in the better-late-than-never department, business interests are weighing in as well. It’s hard to overstate how much damage the Republicans in charge have done to Texas’ reputation this year, and there’s still more to come. Stace has more.

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.

[…]

By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.

Harris County will not enter SB4 litigation

Unfortunate.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday decided not to join a lawsuit against the state’s controversial sanctuary cities law.

A motion made by Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis to move to join the lawsuit died after it failed to receive a second by another court member.

The move comes as pressure had been building for the county to join the lawsuit, which opponents of the state law — Senate Bill 4 — say is discriminatory against immigrant communities.

A number of public speakers Tuesday, including state legislators Sylvia Garcia and Armando Walle, asked the county to join the lawsuit.

“The law in my mind is unconstitutional and it’s in violation of human dignity,” Garcia, D-Houston.

Can’t say I’m surprised by this, but I am disappointed. The Observer adds on.

At the hearing, a group of Democratic lawmakers and activists backed Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis in asking the other four members, all Republicans, to vote to join the legal challenge.

“Over the last several weeks, I’ve heard widespread, almost unanimous opposition to SB 4,” said Ellis, a former state senator and the only person of color on the commissioners court, in a statement to the Observer. “Members of the Harris County delegation in the Legislature… and residents across Harris County asked us to join the lawsuit to overturn the new law.”

[…]

But County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said he was not persuaded.

“Don’t interpret, if we decide not to sue, that decision as an endorsement of SB 4,” he said after hearing the testimony, which lasted about 15 minutes.

“It is!” shouted someone in the audience. She called the commissioners “cowards,” and promised that she and others would campaign against those who chose not to sue. Police officers escorted her out of the room.

Emmett said SB 4 goes too far in “interfering” with local government, but said that doesn’t mean the county should sue.

Perhaps it doesn’t, as there are many other plaintiffs, but no second for Ellis’ motion is hardly a profile in courage for the Court. It would be nice to know, on the record, how this adversely affects the county. Can we be more specific about how SB4 “interferes” with our county’s government? Not in general or in theory, but how it is directly affecting us, the taxpayers and residents of Harris County. We say we’re not endorsing SB4 despite our lack of action. Let’s not give the impression of endorsing it by remaining silent. That is the least we can do. Stace has more.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer Chron story. Of interest:

A majority of the Commissioners Court said that despite their reservations about the law, which some described as an overreach by the state, joining the lawsuit could put the county on a slippery slope for lawsuits over an untold number of disagreeable state bills in the future.

“Were we to sue every bill that gets passed, I think that’s a dangerous precedent,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman, who, along with his three Republican colleagues, opposed joining the lawsuit.

[…]

Earlier in the week, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, a Democrat, filed a friend-of-the-court brief stating that the law would “irreparably harm” children in the state’s child welfare system.

“By mandating county attorneys cooperate in the enforcement of immigration laws – prioritizing immigration over other duties – SB4 creates an irreconcilable conflict between the priority given by our state to the preservation of the family,” the brief states.

[…]

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he questioned whether the bill actually would increase distrust, and said the Harris County Attorney’s office had not recommended to him to join the lawsuit. He also offered a criticism of the law, which he said “basically circumvents authority in a police agency, like the sheriff, for example.”

In his brief, County Attorney Ryan said his office represents state officials who are bound to advocate for children’s best interest and keep families together. It goes on to say the law would deter immigrants from reporting abuse of children, volunteering to care for children or providing evidence in child abuse cases.

“Given that SB4 compels county attorneys to cooperate in efforts which will lead to the deportation of parents or kinship caregivers, the separation of families, and further trauma to children, the new law presents clear conflicts with federal and state child welfare laws, which require efforts to protect children and to maintain the unity of their families without regard to their immigration status,” the brief states.

Like I said, not exactly a profile in courage. Perhaps someone could sit Commissioner Morman down and explain to him that getting involved in this particular case does not create any obligations going forward. At least the amicus brief does state some of the harm from SB4 on the record. Clearly, that’s the best we’re going to get at this time.

How much will the county get repaid for Super Bowl activities?

Quite possibly not very much, as it turns out.

After the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons with a storybook comeback in Super Bowl LI, after the crowds drained away and the national spotlight left Houston, Harris County officials turned to organizers and asked to be repaid for security and around-the-clock support, part of $1.3 million the county spent on America’s biggest sporting event.

The answer, so far: Don’t count on it.

Super Bowl Host Committee officials say they would like to reimburse taxpayers but are not obligated to because the county did not, in its offers of support for the weeklong event, negotiate that it be compensated or repaid by organizers. The city of Houston did and has been repaid $5.5 million by the host committee.

Now, five months after the game, the back-and-forth has some local leaders questioning the costs borne by the county for the game, which was in the county-owned NRG Stadium at no cost to the National Football League, and whether the county will provide similar support in the future.

“It is very shortsighted,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. “There will be future events, future Super Bowls.”

County officials could not say why they did not negotiate a repayment agreement when they decided to support Houston’s bid for the Super Bowl in 2013 – instead offering a resolution of support for the game guaranteeing some assistance at no cost to the NFL. It is unclear if the county asked the host committee for a guarantee of compensation or reimbursement then.

A spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, as far as Emmett was concerned, a resolution like the county passed in 2013 would “never be used again.”

“The judge has now made clear that, before any future Super Bowls or major events like these transpire at a county-owned facility like NRG stadium, that there is going to have to be some type of an agreement where the county receives a share of the revenue from that,” said Joe Stinebaker, Emmett’s spokesman.

The debate over public spending for professional sports has gained steam in recent years as governments find themselves stretched to cover essential services and taxpayers are more aware of their support of multi-million dollar businesses, said Mark Conrad, director of the Sports Business Program at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.

Conrad said the NFL “does not have to be nice” and will continue to push for any public support it can get.

“If I would predict, I would think the county is going to be eating the million dollars-plus,” Conrad said.

Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that the county is better-organized than the city. One can certainly argue that neither the city nor the county should have to enter into such detailed, technicalities-laden negotiations with a multi-billion-dollar private enterprise for payment of these relatively paltry sums. The NFL could just pay for everything up front, or the city and county could just handle it themselves on the grounds that the investment is worth it. But this is the way it is, and the county is at the end of the reimbursement line because they didn’t dot all their I’s. Let that be a lesson going forward.

State to help defend county bail policies

Of course it will.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the top lawyers in five other states are backing Harris County in its protracted battle over money bail for poor low-level defendants, as the tally of those released on no-cash bail nears 1,000.

Paxton and the lead attorneys in Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana and Nebraska filed a joint brief late Monday supporting the county’s appeal of a federal court order that took effect three weeks ago eliminating cash bail for indigent misdemeanor defendants.

[…]

At a tense Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, officials provided the clearest picture yet of the people released from impact of Rosenthal’s ruling. Nearly 980 people have been released by the sheriff under Rosenthal’s ruling as from June 6 through Friday, according to county’s office of budget management.

Of those, 40 people who were released on personal bonds had been arrested again by Friday and charged with new crimes, a rate of about 3 percent.

In the group of people who were able to afford cash bond — either through a bail bondsman or by posting cash — during the same time period, only about 1 percent had been re-arrested, county officials said.

The county’s arguments were countered in a lengthy hearing before Rosenthal that led to her order.

[…]

Paul Heaton, academic director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice and co-author of a study on Harris County’s criminal justice system, said the brief rehashes old arguments.

“The brief does demonstrate, however, that there are still important constituencies that have yet to be convinced of the need for bail reform,” he said. “Despite the significant progress in this area in states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Kentucky, and the mounting empirical evidence that cash bail systems can generate unwanted disparities and harm public safety — particularly when applied to low-level offenders — there are still many jurisdictions satisfied with the status quo that don’t want to change.”

Alec Karakatsanis, director of Civil Rights Corps, who represents ODonnell and the others who couldn’t afford bail, said Monday’s filing by the states’ attorneys echoed that stance.

“The amicus brief is a repeat of bail industry talking points that are entirely untethered to law and to fact,” he said.

I couldn’t find a copy of the Paxton brief, so you’ll have to rely on the story for what we know. Hard to know what else to make of this, or if the amicus brief will have any effect. Some days I wonder what it would be like to have an Attorney General who fights on the right side of an issue, any issue. Must be nice.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.

Ellis shakes things up

Good. It’s what he should be doing.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

When former state Sen. Rodney Ellis launched his campaign to succeed the late El Franco Lee as Precinct 1 commissioner last year, he said he would shake up Harris County government.

He’s kept his promise.

Not even three months into his tenure, Ellis filed court papers siding against the county he now helps govern in a costly civil rights case, tearing apart a bail system he said keeps the poor behind bars ahead of their court hearings while the rich can walk free.

A day later, at what typically is an all-but-perfunctory biweekly meeting of Harris County Commissioners Court, Ellis’ colleagues returned fire.

Unprecedented, one remarked. Another questioned whether Ellis, a lawyer, had a financial incentive for the county to be sued. A third, turning to face Ellis, accused him of “joining a lawsuit” instead of bringing ideas to his colleagues.

“I want you to know that I’m calling upon you to put on your commissioner hat,” said Jack Cagle, whose Precinct 4 stretches across north Harris County. “Not your lawyer hat. Not your senator hat, but your commissioner hat.”

Since Ellis took office Jan. 1, the veteran politician’s style – applying public pressure to advance causes he holds dear – has grated against tradition for a commissioners court that has long relied on quiet, behind-the-scenes deal-making to operate a more than $3 billion enterprise and govern the third largest county in the United States.

“I believe that he thrives in seeking publicity,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, himself no stranger to making headlines with controversial comments over nearly three decades on the court. “That is not the norm that I have seen in Commissioners Court over the years.”

Observers suggest that Ellis’s arrival could signal a shift for the Republican-dominated body, a sign of things to come in a county growing increasingly diverse and Democratic.

“Rodney is as much a catalyst as he is a consequence of what’s happening in county government,” said Robert Stein, Rice University political scientist.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I certainly don’t care that Ellis has annoyed his colleagues, at least on the bail issue. They needed to be annoyed. Part of the problem may be that a Court that’s four-fifths Republican white guy isn’t particularly representative of a county that’s majority non-white and trending strongly Democratic. Perhaps the next couple of elections will help correct that imbalance, but until then Ellis’ colleagues are just going to have to cope.

SCOTUS will not hear Harris County bail appeal

Let this please be the end of the line.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has denied Harris County’s request to stop the release of misdemeanor inmates who can’t afford to post cash bail.

The county had appealed late Tuesday to halt Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s directive that it begin releasing some inmates accused of misdemeanor crimes who cannot afford bail. That order had gone into effect Tuesday, and continued Wednesday, while Thomas considered the county’s application.

Thomas’s denial means some inmates will continue to be released on personal recognizance ahead of their trials if they cannot afford bail. The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’s denial. Often follow-up requests to other justices are referred to the full court, according to the public information office for the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, an appeals court is also considering the county’s appeal of Rosenthal’s full order.

See here for the background. The full Chron story has more details.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal in Houston issued a 193-page ruling in April that the county’s bail system was unconstitutional and ordered the release of indigent misdemeanor defendants using personal bonds.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday morning rejected the county’s efforts to halt Rosenthal’s injunction while they challenged the full ruling in court. The county filed the same day for emergency consideration before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest legal blow left county officials weighing their options and refocusing efforts on challenging the larger order from Rosenthal, said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard.

The county still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Thomas’ ruling. Follow-up requests to other justices often are referred to the full court, according to the high court’s public information office.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg – whose office has already begun supporting personal bonds for misdemeanors – praised the court’s decision.

“There is no longer any legal reason why the county cannot comply with Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order,” she said, in a written statement. “Holding people in jail solely because they are poor violates due process, and the courts at every level of our federal judiciary have clearly spoken.”

[…]

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack said the county wants a chance to complete its reforms without federal intervention.

“I want the end result to be fairness, and that’s what we have been striving for,” Radack said. “I don’t think you can always get court-ordered fairness.”

The bail bond industry has also opposed the order, which will release thousands of potential clients without requiring them to post bond.

Veteran bondsman Carlos Manzano, of Americas Bail Bonds, said he and many of his colleagues believe the overuse of personal bonds will create a dangerous situation for the community.

“It’s kind of like just like giving everybody a slap on the hand,” he said. “It’s going to blow up in the county’s face. It’s just a ticking time bomb.”

[…]

Legal experts said the county has just about used up all its options in challenging Rosenthal’s order.

“There’s no question that Justice Thomas has concluded that there isn’t clear and obvious irreparable harm to the state if the stay isn’t granted,” said Lonny Hoffman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who specializes in federal procedure.

Sarah R. Guidry, executive director of the Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, said Thomas’ rejection of the county’s appeal will force local changes.

“This is going to put a fire under the county to figure out how to implement this,” she said. “It’s also going to have a huge impact on the bail bonds industry. They’re going to have to figure out a different way to make a living. They’re not going the get the bulk of their income off of poor people who are charged with low-level crimes.”

You know where I stand on this, so you know what I think of those BS fearmongering arguments from Steve Radack and the bail bond people. But hey, if I’m wrong then we’ll find out, because the county now has no choice but to comply. And when we find out that they’re the ones that are wrong and that nothing too bad happens, then what exactly will be the point of continuing to appeal? Settle now and save whatever dignity and lawyers’ fees we still can. It’s the only rational option. Lisa Falkenberg has more.

Fifth Circuit reinstates bail order

Good.

Harris County took the fight over its controversial bail system to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, even as county officials scrambled to plan the imminent release of dozens of misdemeanor defendants held behind bars who cannot afford to post cash bail.

A federal appeals court ruling earlier Tuesday had greenlighted the release of hundreds of poor inmates held in the Harris County Jail on misdemeanor charges ahead of their trials, and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez prepared for the release of as many as 177 people starting Wednesday morning.

But in an emergency filing late Tuesday with the nation’s highest court, Harris County asked for another halt to the ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

The county’s request went to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who handles appeals requests from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Thomas can either rule on the matter himself or take it to the full court, according to the county attorney’s office.

“In the absence of a stay, the district court’s order that Harris County — the third-largest jurisdiction in the nation — immediately release without sufficient surety untold numbers of potentially dangerous arrestees is certain to cause irreparable harm,” the county’s appeal states.

[…]

The appeal to the Supreme Court came at the end of a whirlwind day for the county in a closely watched case targeting a bail system in which poor people accused of low-level misdemeanors frequently are kept in jail because they can’t afford to post cash bail while awaiting trial.

On Tuesday morning, a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court determined that Rosenthal’s ruling would remain in effect until the case goes to trial. The ruling set in motion the release of up to 177 misdemeanor detainees, who do not have money to pay cash bail and who do not have other restrictions such as mental health evaluations or federal detainers.

The inmates affected by the ruling account for about 2 percent of the total jail population of 8,800, sheriff’s officials said.

The county will comply with Rosenthal’s order until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

“We know we all have to follow the order of a federal district court,” said Robert Soard, the first assistant county attorney. “We’re working with both the sheriff and pretrial services, and we’re going to try to accomplish that as seamlessly as we can.”

The sheriff’s office expected to begin releasing qualified inmates early Wednesday.

“It doesn’t mean that 177 people will walk out,” said Jason Spencer, spokesman for the sheriff. “That would be the absolute highest number. In all likelihood it will be less than that.”

See here for the background. I’m a little short on time, but you know where I stand on this. I’m rooting for Justice Thomas to decline to take up the county’s appeal, and I look forward to the county having to comply with the order. Maybe then we can finally bring this matter to a close. A statement from the Texas Organizing Project is beneath the fold.

(more…)

No Astrodome vote this fall

This is a bit of a surprise.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

[Sen. John] Whitmire filed a bill that would force the county to get voter approval before spending any money on the Dome.

“It’s a dream and you shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on a dream,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire’s bill sailed through the Senate, but hit a brick wall in the House.

After passing the Senate, the bill was sent to the House County Affairs committee.

State Representative Garnet Coleman is the chair of that committee.

“The Astrodome is a symbol of our ‘can-do’ spirit,” Coleman said. “I want it left as a symbol of what my city is and has been.”

The bill never made it out of Coleman’s committee, so it died. Coleman wouldn’t say whether he agreed or disagreed with the Commissioner’s plans.

“I don’t have to agree or disagree because I don’t want it torn down,” Coleman said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I confess I’m surprised, I had expected this bill to zip through based on its easy adoption in the Senate, but like the AirBnB bill, one must never assume that a bill will make it to the finish line. I didn’t care for the Whitmire bill, so this outcome is fine by me.

With the demise this bill, what could have been a very busy November has been scaled back quite a bit. With no Astrodome vote and no Metro vote (this year), what we are left with are the pension obligation bonds and the revenue cap; it remains to be seen if there will be a vote on forcing city employees onto a defined-contribution retirement plan, as the petitions have not yet been verified and the instigator behind the drive says she’s not interested in it any more. Things can still change, and there will be some number of low-profile constitutional amendments on the ballot, but all in all expect there to be fewer campaigns this November than there could have been. Link via Swamplot.

UPDATE: In case you’re wondering what this means from the county’s perspective.

The end of the session on Monday means the county can move forward with a revitalization project that officials say could be the key to the stadium’s long-term preservation, as well as resume a broader study of the maintenance of the NRG park that was set aside as lawmakers considered Whitmire’s bill.

“I don’t see any potential road blocks,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, on the revitalization project.

Emmett said 2020 would be a rough, early estimate of when the project could be completed.

Architects and engineers are working on the first phase of the project. That first phase began in September, and was seen as one of the most concrete steps toward securing the Dome’s future. It has been vacant for years, and hosted its last Astros game in 2000.

Commissioners Court will have to give another green light for the actual construction to begin.

County Engineer John Blount said the architects and engineers are examining the stadium as part of the design process, verifying that the county’s blueprints match how the stadium actually looks. Blount said, for example, that modifications to the stadium’s drainage system made in the 1960s after it was built were not reflected in its original blueprints.

“We might find things that take some time to go investigate,” Blount said.

[…]

“There’s no reason why the House couldn’t have taken a vote on this,” said Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who supported Whitmire’s bill.

Bettencourt said the 2013 referendum and general fund money being used by the county to fund the project – estimated to be about one-third of the total cost – necessitates a referendum.

“As long as that’s in there, in my mind they’re going to have to bring this to a vote,” he said.

I take Bettencourt’s words to mean that the fight is not over yet. Don’t be surprised if someone sues to stop things once the county begins spending money on this, and don’t be surprised if another bill like SB884 is introduced in 2019.

Time for the 5th Court to decide on Paxton prosecutor pay

Do your job, y’all.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s months-long effort to remove the judge in his securities fraud case is coming to a head in a Dallas appeals court.

Prosecutors say the 5th Court of Appeals has no jurisdiction to get rid of the judge, George Gallagher, because he has moved the case out of its reach — to Harris County. But Paxton’s lawyers say there is no evidence the case has been sent there yet, making the 5th Court of Appeals the appropriate place to push for Gallagher’s removal.

The 5th Court of Appeals paused the case earlier this month to give all sides an opportunity to hash out the dispute. A number of responses stemming from that decision were due Tuesday.

The prosecutors, in their latest response, called it “deja vu all over again” to see Paxton ask the 5th Court of Appeals to intervene in the case. His lawyers were unsuccessful last year in trying to get the court to dismiss the charges.

The prosecutors held firm Tuesday in their central argument against Paxton’s attempt to get the 5th Court of Appeals involved, saying his “claims are ultimately undone by the same facts that purport to fortify them; the transfer of venue to Harris County makes the Harris County appellate courts the proper place” to ask for Gallagher’s removal. Harris County is served by the 1st Court of Appeals.

Paxton’s lawyers countered that the prosecutors “entire argument is premised on the flawed assumption” that Gallagher remains the presiding judge in the case. They reiterated that they have not consented to letting Gallagher follow the case to Harris County, arguing it thus remains in Collin County — and under the jurisdiction of the 5th Court of Appeals.

See here, here, and here for the background. One thing we can all agree on is that there are no new arguments being made. The court just needs to decide whose argument it buys. Time to get this done and move on.

Collin County punts prosecutor pay question back to appeals court

Incoming!

Best mugshot ever

The Collin County Commissioners Court has voted to not pay the prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The 5th Court of Appeals last week directed the commissioners to vote on the prosecutors’ latest bill before it can rule on a lawsuit challenging the fees’ legality. On Monday, the commissioners voted against paying the latest invoice, which tops $205,000 for a year’s work.

“We’re faced with a black-and-white choice: You either pay it, or you challenge it,” said County Judge Keith Self, who sits on the five-member commissioners court. “But don’t expect what we do today to stop the criminal trial.”

Self was addressing the dozen people who attended the Monday meeting and asked the commissioners to reject the latest bill. Most called the criminal case against Paxton a “witch hunt” and pleaded with the commissioners to do something about it. One woman said she was praying for them; another man called the case “frivolous;” still another attendee likened the whole thing to something out of the Soviet Union before adding, “They had genocide.”

The commissioners voted 4-0 (one member was absent) to not pay the prosecutors, who submitted their last invoice in January. They also asked the county’s attorney to prepare for their own court challenge over the fees issue, something the commissioners last year said was an option.

See here and here for the background. Who knew Collin County was so full of drama enthusiasts? My bleeding heart is getting a real workout over here, y’all. Seriously, though, it’s time for the court to put an end to this nonsense and tell Collin County to suck it up and pay the prosecutors. To do otherwise is to ensure that no one will ever want to serve as a special prosecutor in a high-profile case like this ever again. If you think that’s justice, then you really need to re-read your old Soviet history books.

Appeals court chooses not to decide in Paxton prosecutor pay case

This is oddly fitting.

Best mugshot ever

The 5th Court of Appeals on Wednesday said they won’t make a decision on whether the three prosecutors’ fees are legal until the county votes to pay their last bill, which topped $205,000. The prosecutors’ pay has been on hold since January.

The court has told the Collin County Commissioners Court to vote on the fees within the next thirty days, after which the court will rule on the fees’ legality. County Judge Keith Self, who sits on the commissioners court, called the decision “judicial overreach,” and said it’s time to go to trial in the Paxton case so the county can “stop the bleeding.”

“We’ve entered the theater of the absurd,” he told The Dallas Morning News on Friday. “Let’s pay the bill. Let’s get this case to trial. If an injustice has been done, let the trial sort it out.”

The commissioners will vote Monday on the prosecution’s latest bill, Self said. He could not guess how the vote would turn out, but if the commissioners turn down the payment, it could hamper the court’s ability to decide the case pending before them.

See here for the background. As the noted philosopher Geddy Lee once said, “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”. In this case, the 5th Court of Appeals has chosen to decide at a later date, with the hope that they won’t actually need to decide. I’d say we’re not only in the theater of the absurd, we’ve been there long enough to see another feature. I can’t wait to see what Collin County Commissioners Court does on Monday.

Harris County bail order halted

Very late in the day on Friday.

A federal appeals court granted Harris County a last-minute reprieve Friday in a contentious civil rights lawsuit, calling a temporary halt to a judge’s order that would have altered the way cash bail is handled for hundreds of people jailed on misdemeanor charges.

In an order posted after the courthouse closed Friday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the request of the county’s teams of lawyers to stop the order – set to take effect Monday – until the appeals court can further review the matter.

A three-judge panel of the court notes the temporary halt to the order was issued “in light of the lack of time before the district court’s injunction will take effect and in order to allow full consideration of the following motions and any responses thereto.”

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said the ruling will give the court time to fully consider the issues.

“The county attorney is pleased that the 5th Circuit has granted the stay to give us more time to work toward a settlement that is in the interest of all the people of Harris County,” he said late Friday. “They said, ‘Let’s just stop a minute.'”

Neal Manne, who is among the lawyers representing the inmates, said he respects the temporary ruling.

“We have great confidence that Judge Rosenthal’s decision and injunction will eventually be upheld,” he said.

Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan – who was the only judge who did not want to appeal the decision – was disappointed with the appeals court decision.

“I don’t know why we’re still fighting this,” he said. “Millions of dollars of Harris County money is going to be wasted.”

As you know, I agree entirely with that sentiment. I had also drafted and prepared a longer post on Friday on the assumption that the Fifth Circuit would not halt Judge Rosenthal’s order. I saw this story before I went to bed and took this post off the schedule for yesterday, swearing under my breath about the late change. In the interest of not throwing away what I had already written, I’ve got that post beneath the fold. This is what I would have run if the Fifth Circuit hadn’t intervened. I have faith that once they do have a hearing they will reverse themselves, but until then we wait.

(more…)

Harris County will continue to fight bail lawsuit

Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Harris County has appealed a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged the county’s bail system, despite rising legal costs that have neared $3 million.

After a heated discussion and a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Harris County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to appeal the suit and to ask for a delay to a May 15 start date that would require the county to consider an inmate’s ability to pay when setting bail.

The stay was filed after the meeting and Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal promptly issued an order giving all parties until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to the defendants’ request for a stay.

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney from Civil Rights Corps, who represents indigent defendants held in jail because they cannot afford their bail rates said her clients “are disappointed to learn that the county and the judges are appealing Chief Judge Rosenthal’s thorough and comprehensive decision but we are confident that every judge to review it will agree with her and uphold it.” Rossi said her team would “vigorously” oppose a motion for a stay.

County leaders also urged their legal representatives to continue trying to settle the lawsuit, which had led to an order from Rosenthal declaring the county’s system unconstitutional.

“We believe the system she wants to implement is arguably not legal,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has pushed for settlement, cast the the lone vote against the decision to appeal.

“This is really asking the court to give you the funds to appeal,” he said.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who is a named defendant in the lawsuit, also opposes the appeal. He declined to join the other defendants Tuesday in appealing the order, explaining after the Commissioners Court meeting, “We’re just going to move forward to implement it the best way possible and see what all these other proceedings lead to.”

I’m angry about this. It is a huge waste of time and money in pursuit of an unjust resolution. Everyone who supports this needs to be voted out. I don’t know what else to say.

“What are we fighting for?”

That’s the key question for the county in the bail lawsuit.

As legal costs mount, surpassing $200,000 per month, pressure is building for Harris County officials to settle a lawsuit over the county’s cash bail system that a federal judge has ruled unconstitutional.

Newly available documents reveal that teams of defense lawyers are racking up massive ongoing expenses, including one lawyer on retainer since June at $610 per hour and a Washington, D.C. appellate lawyer on board since mid-April at $550 per hour.

Among the two dozen county officials named as defendants in the civil suit, one is fed up.

“It’s time to settle,” said Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan. “What are we fighting for?”

A settlement offer remains on the table from lawyers representing poor people stuck in jail for misdemeanor offenses because they could not afford cash bail. But none of the other defendants in the suit has budged, according to attorney Neal Manne, whose firm donated its services in filing the suit with two civil rights organizations.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Friday he anticipates his office will have a recommendation for the Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday morning. Discussion of the case is included on the Commissioners Court agenda, with possible action to follow.

As of Friday, however, the county has been billed about $2.85 million by outside counsel – a cost the county attorney’s office says is not out of line given the number of defendants and a local criminal justice system that is one of the largest in the nation.

[…]

On Friday, Criminal Court at Law Judge Jordan hand-delivered a letter to County Judge Ed Emmett asking that he be allowed to settle the case immediately.

Emmett spokesman Joe Stinebaker explained the office’s response to Jordan’s letter.

“Judge Emmett has no authority whatsoever to allow or prevent any of the defendants in this suit from taking any action they deem appropriate,” he said.

The formalities were of little importance to Jordan, who said it seems obvious the county should settle, given Rosenthal’s comments that the indigent defendants are likely to prevail at trial.

It’s true that Judge Emmett doesn’t have the authority to make a settlement happen. So let’s be clear about who can make it happen: The County Court judges who are the defendants in the case and who (other than Judge Darrell Jordan, the lone Democrat among them) have insisted on continuing to fight, and County Commissioners Jack Morman, Steve Radack, and Jack Cagle, who have the authority to tell the judges that they will not pay for any further litigation. They have the opportunity to express that opinion on Tuesday. If they do not – if they vote to continue paying millions of dollars to outside counsel in pursuit of a losing and unjust cause – then we know whose responsibility this is.

Why won’t the county settle the damn bail lawsuit?

Lisa Falkenberg asks the same question I’ve been asking.

Now that Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal – it should be noted, a Republican appointee — levelled her devastating assessment of Harris County’s rigid bail system a few days ago, ordering county officials to cease practices that violate misdemeanor defendants’ rights to due process and equal protection, you’d think the elected officials who hold the purse strings would admit the futility of fighting the lawsuit and stop funding this exercise in fiscal irresponsibility.

So, why doesn’t the county just settle the lawsuit, and put the money it is spending on lawyers to better use?

I got a surprising answer when I raised that question with the office of Ed Emmett, the county’s chief executive.

“We have consistently been told by the county attorney’s office that the other side does not want to settle,” Emmett said.

The county attorney is Vince Ryan, whose office represents county officials in legal matters. The “other side” is the plaintiffs: two civil rights groups –Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps – and local law firm Susman Godfrey.

Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker, said that while commissioners decide whether to keep funding the county’s defense, they can only decide “based on honest and full advice of the county attorney’s office.”

OK. But why would the civil rights groups and a law firm working pro bono to improve the system refuse to settle? Could that be true?

“That’s totally false,” said Neal Manne of Susman Godfrey. “Anyone who claims it’s impossible to settle or we were not willing to settle either has mistaken information or is intentionally not telling the truth.”

[…]

Thoroughly confused, I reached out to the county attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard promptly responded. I asked him if his office had really been recommending to Emmett and other commissioners not to settle because the other side wasn’t interested.

“I guess I can’t comment on that because you’re getting into settlement talks and we’re not allowed to talk about that,” he said.

He did offer an observation: “It takes two parties to settle a case. We can make offers, we can make suggestions but unless they’re accepted, there can’t be a settlement.”

Well, yes. But failure to agree to specific terms of a settlement is very different from refusing to settle at all. I told Soard about Karakatsanis’ offer to settle if the county would just abide by Rosenthal’s ruling. At this point, it could save the county millions in legal fees.

“If they make an honest promise and put it in writing we’ll certainly look at it,” Soard said. He noted that although his office can recommend a settlement, it can’t mandate one; all the county officials named as defendants would have to agree.

You know where I stand on this. Like Falkenberg, I’m not sure who’s blowing smoke here. The one thing I would push back on is the notion that Commissioners Court merely approves or denies the requests to fund the county’s defense. Our commissioners are a lot more invested in this case than that, and as we have clearly seen, at least two of them (Radack and Cagle) don’t appear to be willing to give up the fight. I would want to know more about what the Commissioners – other than Rodney Ellis, who has been quite vocal about not supporting any more expenditures on the lawsuit – ave been saying and doing. They themselves may not be the clients in this lawsuit, but they sure do wield some influence.

And now we have this.

A new settlement offer is on the table in the high-stakes federal lawsuit over Harris County’s bail system in the face of a judge’s ruling that poor people are wrongly kept behind bars because they can’t post cash bail.

The offer comes less than 24 hours after County Judge Ed Emmett told the Chronicle that he’d been informed repeatedly by the county attorney’s office that the lawsuit couldn’t be settled because attorneys for the inmates were unwilling to reach a deal.

The comments brought an immediate offer to the county from a lawyer representing misdemeanor suspects: Agree to the terms outlined by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal and the lawsuit can be resolved.

“If they’re willing to settle today, we’re happy to settle, and they could stop spending taxpayer money defending a hopeless cause,” attorney Neal Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, said Wednesday.

[…]

Manne said the settlement offer is just the latest attempt to reach an agreement out of court. He said he submitted the first settlement offer at the county’s request on June 1, which led to two days of mediation in August. After that, the two sides exchanged multiple drafts of proposals, with the final one early this year before the injunction hearing was initially set to begin in February.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Wednesday that settlement discussions had been ongoing prior to the injunction hearing in March and that he was not opposed to further talks since the judge’s ruling.

“I agree with Neal [Manne] that there have been ongoing talks about possible settlements,” he said. “They’ve made offers. We’ve made offers. I don’t know why it’s the county’s fault. Certainly the county is willing to settle on terms that are reasonable. There’s no question about that. And there’s no questions that there have been talks.”

Well OK then. Unless the county believes the judge’s terms are not reasonable, then the framework for a settlement is right there. What’s it going to be, fellas?

County considers its bail options

I can think of one, if they need some help.

With just two weeks until the 193-page order from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal kicks in May 15, county officials are working to draft a plan to deal with the hundreds of misdemeanor offenders now behind bars and the new cases filed each day.

County officials and more than a dozen lawyers spent Monday in meetings deciding whether to appeal the order, said Robert Soard, first assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. He said he anticipates the legal team will have a recommendation about whether to appeal before the next Commissioners Court session May 9.

Jason Spencer, spokesman for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, said the changes will require collaboration among multiple agencies to comply with the ruling so quickly.

“It’s not just a flipping of a switch and now we can do these things,” he said. “It takes time and planning to put new systems in place that weren’t there before.”

Paula Goodhart, administrative judge for the misdemeanor courts, was also among those in the meetings.

“Like everyone else, we’re still trying to process it,” Goodhart said.

Goodhart declined to answer questions specific to the lawsuit, because she is one of the defendants. Instead, she spoke about changes that have been in the works for the past two years to reform the county bail system.

“We do recognize that low- and moderate-risk people should be out pending trial,” she said. “We just want to balance public safety with individual liberty interests.”

On any given day, between 350 and 500 people-about 5.5 percent-of the jail population are awaiting trial on misdemeanors. But about 50,000 people are arrested in Harris County on misdemeanors each year, so the number of people who would not have to pay a bondsman or plead guilty to get out of jail could be in the tens of thousands.

County budget officer Bill Jackson said his office is working to understand how many people may be released by the judge’s order and how much that could reduce the cost of incarceration at the overcrowded jail.

“This is such a moving target,” Jackson said. “There’s just way too many ‘what-ifs’ and variables.”

See here for the background. I can’t help with the what-ifs and the variables, but I can give them one solid piece of advice: Don’t appeal. Save your money on the high-priced lawyers and start implementing what the judge ordered. The county will save a bunch of money by not having so many people in jail, and with that there will be fewer deaths, fewer rapes, fewer allegations of brutality against the guards, and so on. There will also be a higher general level of justice in the county, with fewer people forced out of work and fewer people spending money they don’t have on bail bondsmen and court costs. Less cost, less death, more justice. Someone help me out here, what is it we have to think about here?

Some officials, however, bristled Monday at the judge’s opinion,which was handed down late Friday.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said the ruling was an example of a federal judge changing Texas law. Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack wondered whether the release of inmates could impact public safety.

“Just because somebody has been charged with a Class B or A misdemeanor doesn’t mean that’s a person that’s a real nice person, that’s real trustworthy and hasn’t been involved in an active assault,” Radack said.

Take your two-bit scare tactics and tell it to Judges Hecht and Keller, guys. And settle the damn lawsuit.

Harris County bail system ruled unconstitutional

Damn right.

A federal judge in Houston Friday issued a scathing denouncement of Harris County’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.

In a 193-page ruling released Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates May 15 while they await trial on misdemeanor offenses.

Rosenthal concluded the county’s bail policy violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Constitution.

“Liberty is precious to Americans and any deprivation must be scrutinized,” the order states, citing a comment from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.

The judge also granted “class-action” status to the case, meaning that her findings will apply to all misdemeanor defendants taken into custody.

The ruling – a temporary injunction that will remain in place until the lawsuit is resolved pending appeal – will not apply to those charged with felonies, or those who are being detained on other charges or holds.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said late Friday officials are reviewing the orders.

“No decision has been made at this time concerning an appeal of the preliminary injunction,” he said.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. Grits highlights a key aspect of it.

Judge Rosenthal heard testimony from the Hearing Officers setting bail amounts on the front lines and poignantly found them non-credible: “The Hearing Officers’ testimony that they do not ‘know’ whether imposing secured money bail will have the effect of detention in any given case … and their testimony that they do not intend that secured money bail have that effect, is not credible.” In fact, she attributed “little to no credibility in the Hearing Officers’ claims of careful case-by-case consideration.” In the hearings she watched, they “treat the bail schedule, if not binding, then as a nearly irrebuttable presumption in favor of applying secured money bail at the prescheduled amount.”

If Judge Rosenthal were Politfact columnist, she’d be giving the Hearing Officers a “Pants on Fire” rating. To the extent that appellate courts must rely on her credibility assessments, and on many topics, they must, those lines may well preclude quite a few appellate paths for the defendants.

Her critique extended beyond the Hearing Officers, though to elected judges acting as “policymakers” overseeing Harris’ County pretrial-detention mill, whom she found to be willfully and conveniently ignorant about the human impact of they system they’re running:

policymakers are apparently unaware of important facts about the bail-bond system in Harris County, yet they have devised and implemented bail practices and customs, having the force of policy, with no inquiry into whether the bail policy is a reasonable way to achieve the goals of assuring appearance at trial or law-abiding behavior before trial. In addition to the absence of any information about the relative performance of secured and unsecured conditions of release to achieve these goals, the policymakers have testified under oath that their policy would not change despite evidence showing that release on unsecured personal bonds or with no financial conditions is no less effective than release on secured money bail at achieving the goals of appearance at trial or avoidance of new criminal activity during pretrial release.

That’s exactly right – they’re not going to change unless somebody makes them, and Judge Rosenthal clearly has decided she’s that somebody.

I would note that all of those elected judges are Republicans (*), and they are all up for re-election next year, so there is another way to force a change here. In the meantime, I have to ask again, why are we even still fighting this? What principle are we defending? Why are we writing checks to fat cat Washington DC Republican lawyers to “advise” on whether or not to appeal? Stop the madness and stop wasting my tax dollars on this crap, and settle the damn lawsuit already. It’s the right thing to do on every level. District Attorney Kim Ogg wants to settle. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez wants to settle. Commissioner Rodney Ellis wants to settle. Everyone else needs to get in line.

(*) The judges in question preside over the County Courts, where misdemeanors are heard. County Court Judge Darrell Jordan, who was elected in 2016 to fill a newly-created bench, is the lone Democrat. He also is the lone judge to favor settling.

Settle the damn bail lawsuit already

Enough.

Harris County commissioners Tuesday voted to add high-profile, conservative litigator Charles Cooper to a growing team of attorneys defending the county and several public officials against a civil rights lawsuit alleging the county’s bail system unconstitutionally jails the poor.

Cooper, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and friend of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, would represent 15 out of 16 county criminal court of law judges in a potential appeal.

No decision has been made yet in the case nor has it gone to trial. Parties are awaiting a ruling from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to determine if the current bail system should be suspended before trial. When Rosenthal makes that ruling, either the plaintiffs or the county could appeal.

“It’s simply being ready to deal with eventualities,” First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said of Cooper’s retention. “Whether the county decides to appeal, the plaintiffs decide to appeal, it’s sometimes good to have these things lined up in advance.”

[…]

The county already has paid approximately $2 million to two outside law firms in the case, money that reform advocates such as Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said could have been spent on actually implementing reforms being sought in the suit.

Ellis, who has advocated to settle the lawsuit and has criticized the county’s bail system, cast the lone vote Tuesday against retaining Cooper. He questioned Cooper’s role in defending California’s ban against gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“He seems like the leading candidate that people go to if you want to fight civil rights,” Ellis said.

See here and here for some background. I realize that we’re still waiting for a decision on whether to put an injunction on the county’s bail policies (which I think will be granted) in advance of the trial itself, but this has already taken a long time and cost a ton of money. Meanwhile, the county’s justification is that they’ve made reforms so there’s nothing for them to be sued about. If that’s truly the case, then it shouldn’t be that difficult to work out whatever differences do remain, and save a lot of time and trouble. Digging our heels in further makes no sense to me, and I question the judgment of everyone involved who insists on it. The Press has more.

Commissioners get testy over bail practices lawsuit

Let’s hash it all out.

Sen. Rodney Ellis

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?

January 2017 campaign finance reports: Harris County officeholders

We may or may not have City of Houston elections this year, but we will definitely have Harris County elections next year. Here’s a brief tour of the finance reports for Harris County officeholders. First up, Commissioners Court:

Rodney Ellis
Jack Morman
Steve Radack
Jack Cagle (PAC)

El Franco Lee
Gene Locke


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Ellis      283,394   336,611        0   2,012,250
Morman      17,500    48,609   48,863   1,700,320
Radack       4,000    47,466        0   1,419,710
Cagle      560,528   270,065        0     599,774

Lee              0         0        0   3,769,900
Locke            0    81,475        0      16,672

Jack Morman will likely be a top target in 2018 – he has one announced opponent already, and will almost surely have others – and no one can say he isn’t ready for it. I expect that cash on hand number to be well over two million by this time next year. Money isn’t everything, and returns on more campaign cash diminish beyond a certain point, but whoever runs against Morman will have some ground to make up to be able to get a message out and a ground operation going. Meanwhile, the campaign coffers of the late El Franco Lee have more in them than Morman and Rodney Ellis combined, and I still have no idea what’s happening with that. I have some suggestions, if anyone administering that account is curious.

Next, the countywide offices that are on the ballot next year:

Ed Emmett
Stan Stanart
Chris Daniel (PAC)
Orlando Sanchez

Diane Trautman


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Emmett      72,000   116,700        0     177,800
Stanart      1,100     8,272   20,000      22,956
Daniel      25,800    28,866        0       4,336
Sanchez      1,250    21,813  200,000     214,820

Trautman         0       554                3,029

I skipped the offices that were just elected, because life is short. Ed Emmett’s modest total is further evidence that he was not originally planning to run for re-election next year. I feel confident that he’d have more cash in his coffers if that had been the idea all along, and I also feel confident he’ll make up some ground before the next reporting deadline. Diane Trautman would be up for re-election to the HCDE Board, but as we know she is going to run for County Clerk, so I’m including her here. I’ll be interested to see if any money pours into this race. Orlando Sanchez has had that $200K loan on the books since at least the July 2014 report. I still don’t know where he got the money for it, or why he apparently hasn’t spent any of it since then, but whatever.

Here are the Constables:

Alan Rosen
Chris Diaz
Sherman Eagleton
Mark Herman
Phil Camus
Silvia Trevino
May Walker
Phil Sandlin


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Rosen       16,500    53,719        0     237,908
Diaz         5,600    26,127        0      10,479
Eagleton         0    18,426  102,550       2,132
Herman      10,000     8,713        0     248,578
Camus            0     1,259        0       4,650
Trevino      3,500     6,892        0         142
Walker      28,166    16,935        0      23,475
Sandlin      1,500    20,451        0      56,265

All of the Constables, as well as the Justices of the Peace in Place 1, were on the ballot last year, but as I have never looked at these reports before, I figure what the heck. Alan Rosen has always been a big fundraiser. Sherman Eagleton survived a primary and runoff, which is what that loan money is about. I presume all of the action for Mark Herman was in late 2015 and early 2016, after he got promoted and needed to win a primary. I’d have to check to see if Silvia Trevino raised and spent a bunch of money early on and then took a break, or if she just relied on name recognition to win. She did win without a runoff, so whatever she did do, it worked.

Finally, the JPs:

Eric Carter
David Patronella

JoAnn Delgado
George Risner

Joe Stephens
Don Coffey

Lincoln Goodwin
Laryssa Korduba Hrncir

Russ Ridgway
Jeff Williams

Richard Vara
Armando Rodriguez

Hilary Green
Zinetta Burney

Holly Williamson
Louie Ditta


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Carter       2,000     5,041  129,878       1,316
Delgado      1,500         0        0           0
Stephens     1,770     2,192   44,886          61
Goodwin          0       680  115,000      80,730
Ridgway          0     1,200        0      16,414
Vara         1,635       500    9,787       1,523
Green        1,700       236        0       1,684
Williamson   2,436     4,551        0      66,762


Name        Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
=================================================
Patronella  40,665     3,574        0
Risner      37,365     9,680        0      84,532
Coffey      50,125    26,323        0      64,906
Hrncir         910       999        0      13,681
Williams         0         0   60,000      13,396
Rodriguez        0         0        0       2,219
Burney           0         0        0         902
Ditta            0     4,248    2,000      18,914

The Place 1 JPs were elected last year as noted, while the Place 2 JPs will be up next year. David Patronella’s form did not list a cash on hand total. For what it’s worth, all three groups (Constables and the two sets of JPs) have the same partisan mix, five Dems and three Republicans. I don’t have any further insights, so we’ll wrap this up here.

County will use public defenders at bail hearings

Good.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday approved a pilot program to make public defenders available at bail hearings, a step aimed at retooling a criminal justice system that has increasingly drawn criticism for jailing thousands of poor, low-risk offenders.

Within months, county officials anticipate that two public defenders will be present at bail hearings for those accused of misdemeanors and felonies. The vast majority of the roughly 80,000 defendants at these hearings each year does not now have legal representation, and the change means that defendants of limited means charged with a Class B misdemeanor or above will be able to have access to a lawyer when a judge sets bail.

The pilot represents a major change in the way Harris County processes those accused of crimes. The move also makes it the first county in Texas to create such a program, though one official noted that the county lags behind other major metro areas – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago – in making attorneys available at bail hearings.

“I think it’s a huge step forward that will assure that people’s rights are protected at these hearings,” said Alexander Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, whose office developed the pilot program.

The attorneys would provide information on the defendants’ financial situations to hearing officers who set bail, with the goal of releasing those who cannot make bail, pose a low risk to society and have not been convicted of a crime.

[…]

Several top Harris County officials – including County Judge Ed Emmett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and District Attorney Kim Ogg – have also said recently that the bail system should be restructured so that it doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor defendants.

“This is a positive step forward on the long road to fixing a broken criminal justice system,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator who has sharply criticized the county’s bail bond system.

Emmett, a Republican, also praised the pilot program’s creation Tuesday.

“It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “This is one of those things we needed to do.”

See here for the background. This makes sense on so many levels. It will be cost-controlled, as he public defender’s office budget is approved by Commissioners Court. The defenders assigned to bail hearings will always be there. There will be no concerns about quality or conflict of interest with public defenders, which as we know from long and painful history is not always the case with court-appointed attorneys. It will help prevent defendants from incriminating themselves out of ignorance and lack of representation. And not to put too fine a point on it but it greatly reduces the problem of people getting thrown in jail for no reason other than not being able to pay bail. It’s not a complete solution, in that there are still issues to be resolved in the bail practices lawsuit, but it’s a big positive step. Kudos all around.

We have an opponent for Commissioner Morman

From the inbox:

Miguel Leija

DEMOCRAT MIGUEL LEIJA JR. ANNOUNES CANDIDACY

For Harris County Commissioner Pct. 2

Houston, TX, March 6, 2017 Harris County is the most populous county in Texas and the third-most populous county in the United States with the fourth largest city in the United States.   It is known for its sports, ports and people. Our county is a centrally located place so many have come to raise a family, build a business and spend the best years of their lives.

I’m Miguel Leija Jr. and I’m running for Harris County Commissioner Pct. 2 because I want Harris County to be known as a place of opportunity.

We are at a pivotal place; will we continue to choose to only react to problems and simply make the quick fix or will we be proactive and cast a positive vision for the future of our County and maximize our opportunities over the next 10 to 20 years.

I believe the choice is clear and the time is now and my agenda is clear and focused.

First, we must prioritize with our budget and leadership the most important objective of government and that is Public Safety. We must protect our citizens by creating policies that protect our community no matter their legal status.  We will not be the county that tears families apart.

Second, if we are going to thrive and grow as a community we must commit to investing in our infrastructure and roads by anticipating growth; not merely reacting to it.  We will study where the population growth is and us innovation ways to combat heavy traffic.

Third, county government should create a consistent and predictable business environment when it comes to taxes; keeping taxes low allows all business, small and large to create jobs and to grow and succeed. We also need to impose a higher tax on refineries and put more regulation on these types of companies that pollute our county.

Fourth, we must provide more community services through our community centers.  We need to change how the community centers operate so we can accommodate new services.

  • Afterschool meals for all children under 18 years old.
  • Free Mental Health Counseling
  • Free individual/Marriage Counseling
  • Medicaid/SNAP application assistance
  • Healthy Precinct 2 Program which will bring gym equipment to all community centers.
  • Harris Health Financial Assistance application assistance
  • Employment and Volunteer opportunities for Senior Citizens.

And fifth, we need to provide our county employees Paid Family Leave. We need to start any new employee and adjust current employees to a $15.00 minimum wage. Our county staff can’t live on a poverty level wage.

Those are the priorities we must set, if we are going to have a county government that is responsive to tax-payers and employees.

That’s why I have invested myself in this community. Because I believe this is the best place to live, work and play. There is so much that is good about Harris County and I believe that together, we can leave this community better for the generations to come.  We will be hosting town halls around the precinct in the next few months so we can build out our platform around the citizen’s needs and not politician’s needs.

I look forward to meeting you as we knock on doors, visit community centers and get a chance to share and listen to your concerns, ideas and solutions.  I hope to earn your support and vote in the months to come. I want to make sure you stay connected to our campaign, make sure to sign-up for updates via email, connect with us via social media and consider making a contribution to fuel this effort.

Leija’s website is here. I have not had a chance to speak with Mr. Leija yet, so all I know about him at this time is in this post. I see three possibilities going forward. One is that Leija raises some money, picks up some establishment support, and positions himself as a strong challenger to Commissioner Jack Morman in what may be the highest profile race in the county next year. Option two is that someone who already has establishment support and fundraising chops gets in at some point in the near-to-medium future, and takes the mantle of top challenger to Morman for him or herself. And three, neither Leija nor any other candidate gains traction against Morman, leaving us with a candidate on the ballot next year but without the resources to really compete. Let’s just say that I’d find door #3 to be unacceptable, and I daresay I would not be alone in that. I welcome Miguel Leija, Jr to the race, and I wish him all the best in his campaign.

County approves defense attorneys for bail hearings

Long overdue.

Harris County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to develop a pilot program that would make public defenders present at bail hearings, a move aimed at reducing what officials say is the unnecessary jailing of thousands of defendants because they can’t afford bail or are unfamiliar with the legal process.

The pilot could lead to Harris County becoming the first county in Texas to make legal representation available at all hearings where bail is set. The majority of individuals are not represented by attorneys at the hearings.

Advocates for criminal justice reform heralded the county’s move, noting that research shows those jailed and unable to bail out are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.

They also pointed to cases like that of Sandra Bland, who failed to make bail after a controversial arrest and committed suicide three days later in the Waller County jail, as examples of tragedies that could be prevented.

Roughly 80 percent of the Harris County jail’s population – some 7,000 to 8,000 inmates – are pre-trial detainees.

“In a jurisdiction that large, this is really a sea change about the way they are going to do business,” said Jim Bethke, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

[…]

The county public defender’s office is working with the budget office to develop the pilot program. It could make public defenders present at some or all bail hearings. Currently, Bethke said, only Bexar County has a similar program – and that is tailored to offenders with mental-health conditions.

The public defender’s office will present a pilot program to county commissioners on March 14, and it would go into effect, if approved, on July 1. The county is also implementing a new risk assessment tool for hearing officers to better determine whether people can be released prior to trial.

I consider this another positive outcome of the ongoing bail practices lawsuit. The time was finally right for the issue to gain salience and require some kind of solution, even before any intervention from the court. I want to see what the effect of this is on the jail population, because if it doesn’t have a noticeable effect then something is wrong. Think Progress, which offers an overview of the case, has more.