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Harris County Attorney

Seeking a solution for the translators

Glad to see it.

Three days after election workers barred translators from asking Korean-American voters if they needed assistance inside a Spring Branch polling place, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart met with a group of Korean-Americans to find a way to avoid a similar outcome on Election Day.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, which was brokered by Houston Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, the two sides were unable to agree on a solution that would allow volunteer translators to efficiently help Korean speakers cast ballots while following Harris County’s interpretation of the Texas Election Code. Stanart and the Korean-Americans agreed to work together on a fix, and each proposed a set of rules for translators.

“I want them to be successful,” Stanart said of the voters, who are largely elderly naturalized U.S. citizens. “But I want it to be within the law.”

[…]

On Wednesday afternoon, the Korean-Americans and their supporters sat around a table in the Korean Community Center in Spring Branch with Stanart, Stardig, and members of their staffs. Stardig invited each side to share ideas on how to improve the voting experience for Korean speakers.

Stanart said groups like the Korean American Voters League should inform the county when they plan to take voters to the polls so election workers can be prepared. He suggested the translators could set up a stand outside the 100-foot buffer zone and solicit voters there.

Some of the Korean-Americans said that would be impractical, since polling places are often crowded and non-English speakers are unsure where to go. They said making translators shuffle in line for an hour or more in some cases, instead of being available on an ad-hoc basis when voters reach the booths, is inefficient.

Others objected to being called loiterers by the county, noting that label is not applied to journalists and exit pollsters, who are free to work inside the 100-foot zone. They said Harris County is unfairly applying the Texas Election Code, which is silent on what a loiterer is and does not explicitly state where translators may or may not stand.

“It’s really not that clear,” said Sang Shin, Houston branch president of the Asian American Bar Association. “There are different opinions to that, legally.”

See here for the background. I feel like this is an area of the law that has not been greatly tested in the past, and as such no one is quite sure what to do now. As I said in my earlier post, it would be a good idea to revisit this law and take a stab at clarifying and updating it to better serve modern voters. We have nothing to lose here but our current state of confusion.

Translators

I wish there were a better way to handle this.

The Harris County Clerk’s office on Monday defended a decision by election workers to bar translators offering assistance to Korean-American voters from a Spring Branch polling site the day before.

The county said translators are free to approach voters outside the 100-foot protected zone at each polling place, but Dona Kim Murphey of the Korean-American Association of Houston said Harris County is too strict in its interpretation of the Texas Election Code.

“Nowhere does it say we can’t offer that translation at the entrance of the facility,” Murphey said. “That is unacceptable.”

Local Korean-language outlets urged voters to cast ballots at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center on Sunday because translators, including Murphey, would be there to provide assistance. She said poll workers barred the group of translators from asking Korean speakers in line if they needed help.

The translators were permitted to approach voters in the parking lot, but Murphey estimated they were only able to help 40 to 50 Korean speakers instead of the hundreds they had planned. Several thousand Korean-Americans reside in Spring Branch, and more than 30,000 live in the Houston area.

Douglas Ray, a deputy in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the translators were considered loiterers under the Texas Election Code when they were inside the polling place, because they lacked a “legitimate business purpose” for being there. The code bars loitering and electioneering — advocating for a particular cause or candidate — within the 100-foot protection zone.

[…]

Voters are permitted to bring translators for assistance, so long as they swear an oath to translate accurately. Ray said the problem arose Sunday because the translators were asking voters if they needed help, instead of the other way around. Though journalists and exit pollsters are permitted to speak to voters waiting in line, with the permission of poll workers, Ray said translators offering help are prohibited.

Ray said translators are free to offer their services to voters at any point before they enter the 100-foot zone.

“We just don’t want them to solicit inside the polling place,” he said.

Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the election code supports Harris County’s rationale because a translator who has yet to be requested by a voter does not meet the description of an authorized person who is permitted at a polling place.

See here for an earlier story. I suspect the county’s interpretation of the law is accurate, though perhaps there’s room for a little slack. More likely, I’d say this law was built on some less-than-progressive assumptions and could use a revamp by the Legislature. Wouldn’t be the first time this was the case. I’d like to see someone give this a thorough review and put forth a bill that makes it easier for well-meaning volunteers like the folks from the Korean American Association of Houston to help the people who need it at the polls.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.

Harris County to follow suit on robot brothels

If it’s good for Houston, or not good for Houston, I suppose…

Harris County commissioners are prepared to ban so-called robot brothels, just as Houston did last week.

Harris County already bans live sex acts at any place of business. Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that, in his reading, that includes sex with “anthropomorphic devices.”

“Now, that being said, because of changing technology, it might be a good idea to amend the current sexually oriented business regulations,” Soard said.

[…]

Assistant Chief Tim Navarre said they’ll be ready to present it to Commissioners Court within two weeks. “The dialogue is…almost identical to the city’s, so, we’re way ahead of the curve,” Navarre said.

See here and here for the background. Harris County’s sexually-oriented business ordinance has generally been a mirror of Houston’s, so this is not surprising and mostly a formality. Nonetheless, if you ever had an inclination to attend a Commissioner’s Court meeting, here’s a bit of incentive for you to finally do so. Swamplot has more.

“Viva Texas! Viva Beto!”

It’s been too long since the last time I posted a video.

It all came from a love of the law and a shared dislike of Ted Cruz.

It was a few bigwig local prosecutors, a capital defense attorney, a seasoned member of the Harris County Attorney’s Office and others who got together over the summer, hoping to unseat the junior senator from Texas – with their music. It was, they promised, not as outlandish as it seemed.

“Before John F. Kennedy the only person to ever defeat Lyndon Johnson for public office was Pappy Lee O’Daniel,” said Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke.

“Pappy Lee beat Johnson by having a band and they went around to all these courthouses in Texas playing this song – ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ – and Lyndon Johnson lost that election.”

Seeking to replicate that success, the legally-minded balladeers recorded three songs in support of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, including ditties like “Viva Texas! Viva Beto!” – released on YouTube Saturday.

“We are part of the resistance, we’re it’s tonal dimension,” said David Mitcham, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office trial bureau chief and lead singer of what’s become the de facto in-house band for the DA’s office, Death by Injection.

But the new political rock gathering calls itself The Yellow Dog Howlers.

Here’s the video, in all its glory:

Well, it’s not The Altuve Polka or It’s A Ming Thing, but I give them an A for enthusiasm. And look, it’s not like anyone is gonna write a song about Ted Cruz.

And since they mentioned it, here’s Pass The Biscuits Pappy:

For sure, they don’t write ’em like that any more.

County Attorney declares registration challenges invalid

That’s one word for it.

The Harris County Attorney’s office said Tuesday that the 4,000 voter registrations challenged by a county Republican Party official were invalid, and the voter registrar should not have sent suspension notices to more than 1,700 county voters.

“The voter challenge they received was not in compliance with the law,” Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said. “If somebody doesn’t respond to that notice, we advise (the registrar) not to place voters on the suspension list.”

[…]

Ray explained to Commissioners Court at its Tuesday meeting that to challenge a voter’s registration under state law, the challenger must have personal knowledge that the registration is inaccurate. Ray concluded that Alan Vera, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee who brought the challenges in July, could not possibly know each of the 4,037 voters on his list. Therefore, the challenges cannot be considered, he said.

Vera said Tuesday afternoon he disagrees with that interpretation and will “take follow-up actions.”

He previously said he and volunteers had combed through the rolls looking for voters who had listed the locations of post offices, parcel stories or places of business as their address.

State law requires voters to register at the address where they live.

See here and here for the background. The actual standard for voter registration is not where you actually live but where you intend to live, as Karl Rove and a long list of elected officials going back to the first days of the Republic could tell you. If we really want to enforce this standard, there’s going to be an awful lot of politicians hiring moving vans.

There’s another class of voter that this invalid challenge went after as well.

A detailed look at the list of challenges to the voter registration rolls filed by Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee Chairman Alan Vera reveals that individuals using facilities dedicated to the homeless as residency addresses were among the 4,000 people targeted.

[…]

In addition, the challenge list had a startling number of facilities used by homeless people in the Houston area. The Beacon at 1212 Prairie had 15 such challenges. When contacted, The Beacon said that they partner with COMPASS, a group dedicated to helping the disadvantaged through employment and other means, to allow people staying at the shelter to receive their mail, including government documents such as voter registration paperwork. The Beacon is also where many of the people temporarily staying with the Salvation Army on North Main Street are referred to. The Salvation Army was listed in 23 challenges, despite the fact that the organization does not allow people to use it as a mail service.

Star of Hope Mission, Healthcare for the Homeless and The Hope Center were also among the challenged addresses. Aable Bail Bonds had 18 challenges, likely because they formerly ran a bunkhouse for homeless clients on the second floor.

Patients listing substance abuse and mental health care center addresses were included as well. The Houston Recovery Center, which attempts to divert individuals caught intoxicated in public away from incarceration, had 12 challenges on Vera’s list. Patients may reside at the facility for 18 months according to their media relations department.

As the story notes, just last year VoteTexas.gov was assuring people who had been displaced by Harvey that they could register to vote at a shelter if that’s where they were staying. How things change in a year, eh? It’s unfortunate that the Tax Assessor’s office took action on these registrations, even if was the result of a software glitch, before consulting with the County Attorney. But at least it has all come to light. If we use this as a catalyst to improve our voter registration process, so much the better.

Vote suspension update

The situation gets more complicated.

Harris County mistakenly placed more than 1,700 voters on its suspension list in response to a local Republican official’s challenge of nearly 4,000 voter registrations, county Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett said Wednesday.

The situation quickly spun into a partisan spat with the Harris County Democrats accusing the GOP of targeting Democratic voters, and the Harris County Republican Party blasting Bennett, who also is the county’s voter registrar, for the suspensions and for confusing voters.

“Democrat Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett should not have jumped the gun by suspending those voters’ registrations,” Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson said in a statement. “We urge Democrat Ann Harris Bennett to follow the law and quit violating voters’ rights.”

The suspensions came to light after Bennett’s office mailed letters to the voters whose registrations were challenged, asking them to confirm their addresses.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said counties are required to give voters 30 days to respond to those requests before placing them on a suspension list, but Bennett’s office took that action prematurely in some cases.

“They were following procedure they believed was the correct procedure, but after they consulted with us, they realized that the correct procedure was to wait 30 days,” Ray said.

Bennett blamed the mistake on a software glitch. She said her office discovered the error after three or four days, and immediately fixed the 1,735 suspended registrations.

The suspension list is poorly named, Ray said, because voters whose registrations are placed on suspension remain eligible to cast ballots. Voters are purged from the rolls, he said, only if they are placed on the suspension list, fail to respond to letters from the county and fail to vote in two consecutive federal elections.

See here for the background. It’s good that the suspensions were undone, but it’s annoying that Bennett’s office got the law wrong in the first place. It’s also annoying that the law allows people to make such challenges based on flimsy evidence, which as we saw in this case caused problems for real people who done nothing to warrant it. Even if their registrations being put into suspense was premature and incorrect, the fact that they were sent a letter they had to respond to in order to avoid any future issues was needlessly intrusive. Thus, I still believe that law needs to be revised, and we all need to be on guard for shenanigans like this, since the increase in voter registration in Harris County is a big threat to the Republicans. For now at least we can dial down that alarm a bit. That goes for me, too. The Press has more.

Revised final bail order

We go from here.

The federal judge in a landmark bail lawsuit against Harris County set new ground rules for law enforcement and judges about pretrial release for thousands of low-income people arrested on low-level offenses in a revised injunction issued Friday.

The order prohibits the county from detaining a poor person in instances in which a person with money would be allowed to pay and get out of jail. Specifically, qualified poor people charged with certain offenses, such as drunken driving or writing bad checks, will be permitted to leave jail immediately and return for future appearances. However, the finding also gives judges two days to make a bail determination for people arrested on more serious offenses or who face holds or detainers that would prevent them from being released.

[…]

The county will have another chance to argue the full case when the 2016 lawsuit goes to trial on the merits on Dec. 3, however, county officials could opt to settle the case, something both sides have indicated they would like to do. In two years litigating the case, the county has hired dozens of lawyers at a cost of $6.7 million.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a long-time criminal justice reformer who has backed the lawsuit, said Friday’s decision affirmed the courts’ finding that there are “no legal or moral grounds” for the “unconscionable and futile defense of a two-tiered system of injustice that favors the wealthy and punishes the poor.”

“The county’s indefensible money bond system routinely violates the constitutional rights of poor defendants and forces people to languish behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail — there is no disputing this basic fact,” Ellis said. “Countless families have been torn apart and lives have been ruined by an unfair bail system that denies pretrial liberty and basic constitutional protections to poor defendants.”

The lawyers defending the county called Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s order “an excellent beginning for a settlement.”

“The county remains committed to a settlement that maximizes the number of misdemeanor detainees who are eligible for prompt release from jail without secured bail, that provides due regard for the rights of victims and protection of the community and preserves the independence of the judiciary,” said Robert Soard, first assistant to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember because this has gone on for so long, but the entire fight so far has been about the preliminary injunction, which is what is being finalized here. This is the order to define what the county can and can’t do while the lawsuit proceeds. Litigating the case on the merits could take years more, and cost many more millions. So if the county really does see this order as a good foundation for a settlement, we should all be glad to hear it. Of course, that is mostly up to the misdemeanor court judges, who are the defendants and who have refused to budge throughout. Perhaps Commissioners Court can put some pressure on them, though outside of Commissioner Ellis they’ve been part of the problem, too. If you truly want to see this come to a just and cost-effective end, the answer is to vote those judges out in November. Ultimately, we get to decide. Grits has more.

Once more with the bail order for Harris County

Getting close to the end.

The federal judge presiding over the landmark bail lawsuit against Harris County said she planned to issue revised instructions within two weeks for how pretrial release should operate for thousands of poor people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal fielded input Thursday from attorneys on both sides of the contentious two-year dispute about which defendants should be held in custody and which ones released during the first two days following an arrest.

Rosenthal’s instructions from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals were to figure out details, but she said she hoped the county, which has spent more than $6.1 million battling the lawsuit, was on board with the appeals court’s overall findings about the unfairness of “wealth based detention.”

[…]

The attorneys for the indigent defendants asked Rosenthal to consider ordering the immediate release of poor people arrested on certain offenses like drunk driving or writing bad checks if people with the means to pay bond were being released immediately on the same charges.

Lawyers for Harris County, and the hearing officers and county court at law judges who oppose the lawsuit, requested that Rosenthal follow the appeals court instructions to allow up to 48 hours for indigent defendants to appear before a judge who can make an appropriate determination about bail.

Judge Rosenthal had issued final instructions earlier in June, so I presume this is a modification of that. It’s my hope that the next development in this case will a ruling that satisfies the plaintiffs and that the defense accepts. We really do need to end this litigation, and there’s not much of an argument left for the county to make. Regardless, it’s still a good idea to vote out the judges that made us go through all this in November. A political resolution on top of a legal one would really make the difference.

Final instructions in bail practices lawsuit

We may finally be nearing a conclusion in this matter.

A year after a landmark ruling that upended Harris County’s bail system, a federal appeals court Friday issued final instructions for a Houston judge to craft a revised plan for releasing poor people who qualify after arrests for low-level offenses.

Lawyers on both sides of the contentious two-year lawsuit hailed the ruling Friday as a victory, and the county said it offered a solid template for a final settlement.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who issued an injunction last year halting longstanding bail practices, set a new hearing June 14 for both sides to begin hammering out a detailed plan.

A New Orleans appeals court Friday rejected the county’s requests to halt or alter portions of the historic 2017 ruling in which Rosenthal found the county’s bail process violated constitutional rights to equal protection and due process, subjecting poor people to what termed “wealth-based detention.” The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed the case back to Rosenthal to begin implementing adjustments to her order addressing the release of misdemeanor defendants who don’t have holds or detainers.

“Harris County has been working diligently to improve the criminal justice system,” said Robert Soard, first assistant to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “The county remains committed to a settlement that maximizes the number of misdemeanor detainees who are eligible for prompt release from jail without secured bail, that provides due regard for the rights of victims and protection of the community, and preserves the independence of the judiciary.”

But the court denied several requests from the county for immediate changes to Rosenthal’s order. Neal Manne, one of the attorneys for the indigent defendants, said he was delighted the court amended its ruling the way his legal team requested.

“We went 3-for-3 today, which is usually done only by Jose Altuve,” he said.

See here for the background. All I can say is that if everyone feels like they won in this ruling, then everyone should feel like they’re in a good position to negotiate a final agreement, and that maybe there aren’t that many points of disagreement left to dicker over. Perhaps we’ll find out on June 14. It is long past time for this matter to be resolved, and for a better and more just system to be implemented.

Harris County sued by “voter fraud” trolls

Let’s get this kicked to the curb ASAP.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A conservative non-profit group sued Harris County in federal court Thursday to force the county to make available records on how it stops non-U.S. citizens from voting.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation said in its lawsuit that it had requested in December to inspect records from the county including “documents regarding all registrants who were identified as potentially not satisfying the citizenship requirements for registration” and communication received “requesting a removal or cancellation from the voter roll for any reason related to non-U.S. citizenship/ineligibility.”

[…]

The foundation has filed similar lawsuits in other places like Pennsylvania and has targeted other areas like New Jersey and Bexar County.

The group has faced criticism over the numbers it uses in claims of corrupted voter rolls. Some opponents have said they are targeting Democratic-leaning, low-income areas with the lawsuits.

See here for more about these clowns. See also this story about a failed attempt by a similar group with the same guy in charge, which may have implications for efforts like this. All I can say is that Harris County had better put as much time and effort into beating back this lawsuit as it has done with the bail practices lawsuit.

No observers for ADA violations

This is interesting.

Only days before a crucial state primary, the Justice Department has halted its effort to send observers during the election to assess whether Harris County polling sites are accessible to disabled voters.

The observer request was made as part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit spearheaded by the civil rights and disability rights division in Washington, D.C., alleging Harris County’s voting sites are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the concerns Justice department identified in its claim are the lack of appropriate parking, proper ramps, navigable sidewalks, passageways and voting space, and other mandatory accommodations.

U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett in Houston told the county at a hearing in April that the scope of accessibility violations at polling places could be so vast that a special master might be needed to sort them out.

As the final days of the early voting were underway, the Justice Department withdrew its earlier request to inspect voting sites during the March primaries, and canceled two related court hearings scheduled for earlier this week.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, declined to comment about why the attorneys canceled two scheduled hearings this week in Houston.

But Douglas Ray, managing attorney for the public law practice group at the Harris County Attorney’s Office, which represents the county election office, said it’s possible that the lawyers in Washington determined they couldn’t prevail in their motion requesting to send observers to the polls.

See here, here, and here for the background. Another possible explanation is that the original lawsuit was filed by the Obama administration – there were observers in place for the 2016 general election – and the Trump Justice Department is not terribly interested in pursuing any of the actions they initiated. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’ll say again, I do believe the county could fix an awful lot of these problems if it wanted to without to much fuss. Surely that would be less problematic than fighting the litigation.

Fifth Circuit largely upholds bail practices ruling

Good.

The 26-page opinion by Judge Edith Brown Clement affirms the majority of Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s landmark ruling, including her finding that the county’s bail policies violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

However, Clement and fellow judges Edward C. Prado and Catarina Haynes disagreed with Rosenthal’s analysis on three matters and sent the case back for her to reconsider those elements.

They concluded Rosenthal was overly broad in her analysis of the due process violation and in extending no-cash bail to all indigent defendants. They found her demand that qualified defendants be released within 24 hours was “too onerous,” opting instead for a 48-hour window.

They also ordered Rosenthal to fine tune how officials assess a defendant’s ability to pay bond.

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a supporter of the lawsuit who traveled to New Orleans to hear the oral arguments in the case, called it “a significant victory for justice.”

“With this decision, the conservative 5th Circuit is telling Harris County that it’s unconstitutional to have two justice systems: one for the rich and one for the poor,” Ellis said. “Yet Harris County has already spent more than $5 million defending a morally and legally indefensible bail system that violates the Constitution and punishes people simply because they are poor.”

[…]

Attorney Neal Manne, whose firm, Susman Godfrey, joined in filing the lawsuit, praised the decision.

“I am absolutely thrilled by the ruling, which is a huge and historic victory for our clients,” he said.

The appeals judges found that the county had acted mechanically in reviewing bond decisions, failing to take the time to consider economic factors. The ruling summarized Rosenthal’s equal protection findings by imagining the outcomes for two hypothetical misdemeanor defendants, identical in every way — facing the same charge, from the same criminal backgrounds, living in the same circumstances — except that one was wealthy and the other indigent.

While the wealthy arrestee was less likely to plead guilty and get a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to pay the social costs of incarceration, it found, the poor arrestee, “must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart,” they wrote.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. This was basically how I read it based on the coverage of the arguments. I agree with attorney Manne and Commissioner Ellis that this is a great ruling, and that it’s way past time to settle this effing thing.

The Trib adds on:

But the ruling wasn’t a total win for the plaintiffs. The appellate court still said Rosenthal’s ruling was “overbroad” and asked her to narrow some of the orders against the county.

Perhaps of most significance, the appellate court pushed back on Rosenthal’s order for the sheriff to release at no cost all misdemeanor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bond within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of whether they’ve had their bail reviewed or set at a higher cost. The appellate judges appeared suspicious about Rosenthal’s time limit in their hearing and said Wednesday that it was too strict.

In sending the case back to Rosenthal for a modified ruling, the higher court suggested an injunction that demands that poor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bail be entitled to a hearing within 48 hours of arrest where they can argue for a lower or no-cost bond.

If a judicial officer declines to lower the bond at this hearing, he or she would have to put the reason for their decision in writing, and the arrestee would then get a formal bail review hearing before a judge. If, after those 48 hours, there are no records showing an individualized bail review process took place, the sheriff could release the defendant at no cost.

‘The 48-hour requirement is intended to address the endemic problem of misdemeanor arrestees being detained until case disposition and pleading guilty to secure faster release from pretrial detention,” Clement wrote.

I’m fine with that, and I expect the plaintiffs will be as well. Mark Bennett sums it up.

It’s time for the fourteen criminal court at law judges to declare victory and go home. ((Just between you and me, this opinion is a rout for the judges. The changes are small, and the current injunction remains in place until Judge Rosenthal modifies it.))

Indeed. I really hope this time they listen.

Harris County sues Arkema

Good.

Vince Ryan

Harris County filed suit Thursday against Arkema over chemical fires at its Crosby plant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, saying the company violated a long list of environmental, safety and building regulations and put first responders at risk.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court, seeks up to $1 million in penalties and asks that Arkema be ordered to upgrade its emergency response plans, build stronger storage areas and set up a notification system for alerting nearby residents of future incidents.

About 300 homes were evacuated and more than 30 people hospitalized — including law enforcement — when a volatile chemical erupted into flames after the plant lost power and generators in Harvey floodwaters.

“This was a very dangerous situation,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement Thursday. “Arkema must take responsibility for its inability to ensure the safety of the people of the Crosby community and those who protect them.”

[…]

The company self-reported multiple emissions from the plant to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality TCEQ during the disaster. Before the company lost control of its organic peroxides, floodwaters overwhelmed its wastewater treatment plant, resulting in industrial wastewater leaking into county waterways. Each separate fire resulted in air emissions from the facility.

Multiple new details were revealed in the county’s lawsuit. The county’s suit claims that Harris County Pollution Control Department detected air pollution outside of the mandated evacuation zone during the crisis.

It also says parts of the Arkema facility is located below base flood elevation, requiring permits the company did not have.

See here for more on the first lawsuit filed against Arkema. Commissioners Court authorized filing this lawsuit in late September. As I said before, I think Arkema needs to be held accountable for the things that it did and did not do that led to the many harmful environmental problems that resulted. Harvey was an unprecedented event and there likely wasn’t much they or anyone could have done to prevent consequences from it, but that doesn’t take them off the hook for their failure to be prepared. The Press has more.

Fifth Circuit hears bail lawsuit arguments

Big day in court.

Amid a stream of pointed questions from the bench, lawyers for Harris County Tuesday asked panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss a lower court ruling that the county’s criminal justice system violated the constitution by holding poor defendants on low level offenses simply because they could not afford bail.

The arguments challenge an April ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston that the county’s bail system violated due process and equal protection by discriminating against poor misdemeanor defendants, when people with the money to could await trial at home.

A trio of appellate judges heard 30 minutes of oral arguments from the county, which has spent $4.2 million combating the lawsuit, and another 30 minutes from lawyers for a group of indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

[…]

[Judge Catharina] Haynes commanded the questioning throughout the morning, including when Chuck Cooper, a seasoned appellate lawyer who heads the Washington, D.C. law firm Cooper & Kirk, argued for the county that the bail hearings were not perfunctory.

Haynes interrupted Cooper mid-sentence, with a rhetorical question, “Now they know they’re under scrutiny so they add an extra sentence to their rubber stamp?”

To Alec Karakatsanis, director of the Civil Rights Corps in D.C, who represents the indigent defendants who sued the county, Haynes repeatedly asked about why the defendants needed to be released from jail by the 24-hour mark.

“I’m asking a very specific question you’re not answering,” she said. “Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say you’re required to release… within 24 hours.”

“It doesn’t,” Karakatsanis said.

Haynes also asked what’s the value of the affidavit inmates sign to swear they can’t afford bail.

“What if they’re lying on this affidavit–I don’t know, if they’re a millionaire or something?” she queried.

Karakatsanis said they could face further prosecution for contempt if they misrepresented their means.

See here and here for some background, and here for a Chron preview; I’ve been following this for awhile so if you’re a regular reader this should mostly be familiar. The Trib adds some details.

The judges repeatedly peppered Cooper with questions about the county’s probable cause hearings, in which judicial officials called hearing officers hear the charges against a defendant, evaluate reports from pretrial interviews and occasionally alter bail. The plaintiffs have argued that defendants are not allowed to speak at these hearings, which Haynes and Prado jumped on.

“They’re called hearing officers. Is there a hearing or do they just look at the form and make a decision?” [Judge Edward] Prado asked.

When Cooper contended that they did, Haynes cut him off: “But they can’t speak. What is a hearing if you’re not going to listen?”

[…]

In his argument, Cooper cited multiple county reform efforts that have taken place since the court order took effect in June. In July, the county began using a new risk assessment tool to better recommend to judicial officers setting bail when low-risk offenders should be released on personal bonds. He said, though no data has been recorded in the court, that release on personal bonds has increased.

Haynes questioned whether it was worth sending the case back to the lower court to find new facts since the reforms have taken place. Karakatsanis argued the new facts are unknown, and that there is nothing in the court record to corroborate Cooper’s statements.

County Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Harris County judge who rejected money bail for indigent defendants before the ruling, was at the arguments and said afterward that he wished there was an opportunity to talk about the system under the changes. Overall, he said, the process hasn’t changed.

“If it is sent back to the lower court, then the numbers will show what is going on,” he said. “People are still being placed in jail, and they can’t afford to get out.”

It is unknown when the judges will make a decision whether to uphold Rosenthal’s ruling, overturn it or send it back to the lower court. But after the ruling, Karakatsanis said he was optimistic the court will stand by Rosenthal’s injunction.

“The order that they’re appealing from is based on very solid evidence, and they’re asking for it to be overturned,” he said. “You can’t just come in front of higher courts and say, ‘Well, facts are totally different from what happened…’ without any citation.”

All three judges were Bush appointees, by the way, one by 41 (as was trial judge Rosenthal) and two by 43. My layman’s reading of this is that the judges were far more skeptical of the county than of the plaintiffs, but they clearly found the 24-hour requirement to have a hearing or release a defendant questionable. If they want to modify that it’s probably not a big deal, but beyond that I hope they uphold the ruling. They’ll issue their opinion when they’re damn good and ready.

Harris County files lawsuit against Arkema

More trouble for that nasty and troublesome chemical plant.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized the county attorney to file a lawsuit against Arkema over its struggles to manage stores of hazardous chemicals during Hurricane Harvey.

The county’s Pollution Control Services Department found serious violations of the Texas Clean Air Act by Arkema, County attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. The county will try to recover the costs from responding to the crisis at the company’s Crosby plant. It will ask the court to review Arkema’s emergency preparedness plan and its environmental practices. The commissioners made the decision to approve the suit as part of its agenda wide unanimous vote.

“We’ve shown if you’re a bad actor, we’ll hold you accountable,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman.

[…]

Arkema lost control of its Crosby facility after floodwaters cut the power and wiped out its back up generators. With the power out and cooling systems failing, volatile organic peroxides exploded multiple times over a week, producing towering pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke.

A 1.5 mile evacuation zone was set up when government officials got access to the company’s chemical inventories. About 300 homes were evacuated during the crisis.

“During the height of this storm event, we had to have literally dozens of first responders tied up at this facility when they could have been in other areas of the county,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the county attorney’s environmental group.

Arkema’s claims that there was no way to anticipate six feet of water inundating the Crosby plant isn’t believable, Owens said. “We all knew for a week that we might get up to 50 inches of rain,” he said. ,” Owens said. “That’s not true. We all knew it was coming.”

See here for some background. Basically, the allegations in this lawsuit and the one filed by first responders are that this plant was woefully inadequate on safety measures, and they covered up their inadequacies as much as they could, which put residents and those first responders in needless danger. I would very much like to see them held responsible for this.

Fifth Circuit sets bail hearing

Mark your calendars.

Harris County will have another chance to defend its embattled cash bail system this fall in a lawsuit brought by indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford money bail.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced Tuesday it has set oral arguments for the week of Oct. 2 in New Orleans. Each side will have a half hour to argue before a panel of three judges, officials said. The panel of judges will likely then take its decision under advisement, according to lawyers familiar with typical proceedings.

[…]

The county appealed the April 28 injunction issued by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal of the Southern District of Texas, in which she found that Harris County’s cash bail system discriminated against poor misdemeanor defendants.

“Cases get overturned,” said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard of the oral argument. “We’ll be given another opportunity to point out to the fifth circuit where we disagree with Judge Rosenthal.”

[…]

Harris County has spent $4 million on outside counsel to defend the case, according to latest county estimates, with a high-powered D.C. lawyer firm now on retainer.

You know where I stand on this. I just wonder how much more fight the county will have if they lose at this level, or even if they just fail to get an injunction against the current order. Do they plan to take this to the Supreme Court if necessary? How much influence is the Attorney General’s office exerting on this? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

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.

County’s new bail system not quite ready

Real soon now.

Harris County’s long-trumpeted new system for setting bail for people awaiting trial will be up and running by the end of July, nearly a month later than the July 1 effective date the county had promised a federal judge, officials said Monday.

The new approach won a green light late Friday from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who issued an order saying the new system did not violate an April ruling that threw out the previous system as unconstitutional.

But Rosenthal warned in a blunt 200-word footnote that the new rules “do not change much,” indicating county judges must stop requiring cash bail for low-level, misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford it.

The new rules will be based on a risk-assessment tool designed to help the county’s judges determine a defendant’s likelihood of appearing in court and staying out of trouble. The system imposes a fee schedule ranging from $500 to $5,000 for misdemeanors and recommends upfront 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.”

A lead attorney for the people suing over the bail system said Rosenthal’s order showed frustration with the county.

“The interesting thing is that she notes the county has not done what it said it was going to do,” said Neal Manne, a partner at Susman Godfrey, a law firm providing its services at no charge.

[…]

Next week, staffers will get training on how to use the public safety assessment, a standardized formula developed in partnership with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Houston nonprofit, and funded by the New York-based MacArthur Foundation, [Kelvin L. Banks, director of Harris County Pretrial Services] said.

The following week, county officials will start to recommend varying supervision levels based on the risk assessment, such as requiring people with a history of not showing up for court to check in more frequently than those who regularly appear as needed.

The county has added 13 new employees in recent months to help keep up with the new demand, Banks said.

Whether the county’s approach is constitutional depends on how it’s implemented, Rosenthal noted in the two-page order Friday. She said the county had a “consistent custom and practice” to require cash bail.

Rosenthal praised the county’s new rules, however, for instructing judges who set bail that they should ensure that “liberty is the norm, and detention prior to the trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception,” as the U.S. Supreme Court instructed in a decision 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, the fight goes on. The best thing that can happen here is that this new system is implemented well and that it meets the requirements of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. Because if that does happen, then there’s no need to continue the appeal, right? Let’s hope so.

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.

One Republican judge doesn’t want that high-priced attorney for the bail lawsuit appeal

Credit where credit is due.

One of 15 Harris County judges challenging a federal order altering how bail works for indigent defendants has dropped out of the group that hired a pricey D.C. law firm to appeal the lawsuit.

Court at Law Judge Mike Fields, a Republican who has been on the bench since 1998, opted out of the appeal prepared by Cooper & Kirk, whose top lawyer, Charles “Chuck” Cooper, bills $550-per-hour, and who was just retained as private counsel for Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Fields said in an interview Wednesday he still supports the appeal, but going forward he prefers to use the Harris County Attorney’s Office as his legal representative. He doesn’t want the county to spend more money on his behalf. He said he couldn’t imagine how much higher the bills will go.

“I hate to even speculate,” he said. “I know the average Harris County taxpayer makes $20 an hour — $550 an hour is a huge jump from there.”

[…]

The suit already cost Harris County about $3.5 million, and Fields, 52, said he cannot justify spending more money for the appeal, especially after the district, circuit and U.S. Supreme Court all denied the county’s request for stay of Rosenthal’s order. He said he supports the idea of a settlement, and several of his colleagues do as well.

I’m glad that the continuation of this lawsuit and the extreme price tag of this particular attorney has made Judge Fields uncomfortable. It should make him uncomfortable, and one wonders why it hasn’t made his Republican colleagues equally uncomfortable. Those colleagues of his who say they join him in supporting a settlement, they should come forward and make themselves known. At this point, it seems clear that the only way to end this lawsuit without dragging it out till the bitter end and handing a very large amount of taxpayer dollars to a fancy appellate attorney is for these judges to say “enough is enough”. Judge Fields is the first of sixteen Republican misdemeanor court judges to express that view. One down, fifteen to go.

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…)

Judge Jordan deserves to have his position in the bail lawsuit represented

I have problems with this.

Darrell Jordan

The only Harris County judge to fight the county’s defense of its controversial bail system has been notified he will not get his own lawyer to appeal the high-profile federal lawsuit that has divided county leaders.

Judge Darrell Jordan – one of 16 criminal court at law judges sued over the county’s cash bail system – is fighting to keep a county-funded attorney who will carry his push to end the lawsuit to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard, however, sent an email Thursday telling Jordan that the appeal for him and other judges will be handled as a group, even though Jordan disagrees with the other judges.

“By taking me out of the fight – by me not having an appellate lawyer – then I can’t attack the unconstitutional grounds that they’re coming from,” he said. “My lawyer should be coming in, and we should be going over what the other judges have filed … We should be telling the truth from my viewpoint.”

He vowed to continue his challenge of the system.

“This fight is too important to just sit back and give up,” he said in an email to the Chronicle.

Soard said Friday he could not discuss conversations between Jordan and the county attorney’s office because of attorney-client privilege, but he said an attorney from his office is reviewing the matter.

In the email exchange with Jordan, however, Soard said the legal fight has centered on the county, diminishing the legal arguments needed on behalf of individual judges, the sheriff or six hearing officers also named in the case.

“Our office is of the opinion that additional filings on your behalf in this case are not appropriate or necessary at this time,” he said in the email, a copy of which was provided by Jordan to the Chronicle. “We have been unable to identify any claim or defense that you may assert that is separate from that of the County or the other County Criminal Court at Law Judges acting as a legislative body.”

[…]

Typically, the county provides legal representation when leaders are sued in their official capacity. Rosenthal’s injunction targets the judges in their “legislative capacity,” however, since the judges work together to set bail practices, according to Soard’s email.

No judge named in the case has a personal attorney in the appellate process, said Melissa Spinks, the county’s managing attorney for litigation.

Jordan said Friday, however, that he has been excluded from meetings where the 15 other judges discussed the case. He blamed County Attorney Vince Ryan for cutting off his legal representation.

“Vince Ryan has found a way to silence my voice,” he said in an email. “I have no other lawyers to call for advice.”

Soard said he was unaware of Jordan’s allegation that he had been excluded from meetings, but said his office would look into it.

I don’t know what to think about the role the County Attorney has played in all this. The charitable explanation is that as the attorney representing the misdemeanor court judges, Vince Ryan believes he must carry out the wishes of his client, and that he cannot decide for them. That breaks down when one of those clients, Judge Jordan, wants something different than what his colleagues want, which argues for letting him have his own counsel. Of course, that can’t happen without the approval of Commissioners Court. So to some extent Ryan is boxed in, but it’s not clear how much he’s been constrained, and even if he is it’s not clear he can’t find a way to express his concerns over this lawsuit, if indeed he has them. In the end, we’re left to decide for ourselves whether Ryan is acting appropriately, or if any other County Attorney might have acted differently. I can’t fault anyone who thinks the answers to those questions are No and Yes, respectively.

This case is an excellent distillation of the reasons why I so strongly oppose any effort to make judicial elections non-partisan. Let’s be clear, every Republican judge involved in this lawsuit opposes efforts to change the bail system, while the one Democratic judge, who is only there because the creation of a new court caused his bench to be on the ballot during the Democratic tidal wave year of 2016, not only wants the system to be overhauled but has changed the way he operates his court to comply with Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. The division on this issue is entirely partisan, and that is something that the voters ought to know. I personally don’t care if any of these Republican judges are objectively “good” or not, I believe they are completely wrong on this very important issue, and I believe it is appropriate and valid for anyone who shares my belief to vote against all of them for it. The decision to defend and perpetuate this unjust system of bail, and the decision to continue the fight after Judge Rosenthal’s forceful and sweeping ruling, is a political one and it deserves a political response. The people should be fully informed about their judicial candidates, and at least in this election, the party label is a crucial piece of that information. Anyone who would advocate otherwise needs to account for that.

I should add, by the way, that even in the absence of this lawsuit or a willingness to finally settle it, the party label still matters. I can believe, based in large part on the precinct date that we’ve been over multiple times, that at least some of these Republican judges did not vote for Donald Trump last year. Good for them. But there’s no evidence in the data from previous years to suggest that they did anything but vote for Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz. I for one believe it is also valid and appropriate to vote against people who voted for Patrick and Paxton and Cruz. I understand that some babies may get defenestrated along with the bathwater in doing so. I’m willing to accept that. Some day, when Republicans are nominating better people than Patrick and Paxton and Cruz, I’ll reconsider. Until then, I say partisan considerations in selecting judges have a lot more value than some people are willing to give them.

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.

Bail practices lawsuit wraps up

It’s up to the judge now.

The call by two civil rights groups for an immediate fix to Harris County’s bail system is now in the hands of a federal judge after high-stakes arguments over whether poor people should remain in jail on misdemeanor offenses because they can’t afford to post bail.

Key criminal justice leaders in the county – including the sheriff, district attorney, public defender, misdemeanor judges and hearing officers – have weighed in on a lawsuit filed last year challenging the local system as unconstitutional.

Now Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal will decide if the current bail system should be suspended temporarily until the lawsuit goes to trial, despite efforts already under way to alter the local system.

The county’s bail schedule punishes “working poor” people like Maranda ODonnell, a single mother who filed the lawsuit after spending two days in jail for driving without a valid license, attorney Alec Karakatsanis said during closing arguments Thursday.

The county’s lawyers argued changes already made to the system have brought an increase in defendants released on no-cash bonds.

“The present system is not perfect, it’s a compromise,” said John O’Neill, who represented the county judges. “It’s as imperfect as democracy.”

See here and here for some background. What’s at stake here is a preliminary injunction against the current system, with a full trial on the merits of the lawsuit to follow, if there is no settlement in the interim. I’m not sure what an injunction would look like in practice, but I’m sure Judge Rosenthal will have some ideas if she grants it. I get the sense that ruling will come sooner rather than later, but we’ll see. The Press has more.

Bail practices lawsuit gets going

The first day in court for this lawsuit was Monday.

Neal S. Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, told Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in his opening statement Monday that ODonnell and hundreds of other poor people charged with minor crimes do not get a fair chance to win pretrial release here if they can’t afford to pay a bondsman.

He lauded the recent bail reforms the county has begun and those it plans to install, but he said none address the basic constitutional questions of equal protection under the law.

“If you have money, you can get out. If you don’t, you can’t,” Manne said. “That’s what we’re here about.”

The opening statements took on a question-and-answer format as Rosenthal peppered the lawyers with dozens of sharp questions and hypothetical arrest scenarios trying to get at the truth of how bail works here.

Melissa Lynn Spinks, who is heading the defense team on behalf of the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the premise that Harris County has a wealth-based bail system is “a woefully simplistic argument.”

“The defense believes there is a category of high-risk defendants that we simply can’t ignore,” she said, explaining that hearing judges weigh several factors in setting bail.

Four other attorneys representing the judges, the sheriff and the county presented a preview of their arguments, interrupted by lively questioning from the judge.

Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against the county to force immediate changes in the bail process. There’s no monetary award being sought, just changes to the system. It’s not clear to me what the timeline is, so we’ll just have to follow along and see. In the meantime, as we know there have been some changes made that will address some of these issues, but there’s more that needs to be done. Grits for Breakfast quotes an email from UH law professor Sandra Guerra Thompson that begins with a discussion of two bail reform bills that have been filed in the Lege and then moves on to this lawsuit as a case in point.

Ending Pretrial Punishment. If your loved one is arrested tomorrow in Texas, he or she will almost certainly be required to pay money to get out of jail. For most people who cannot pay the entire amount of the bail set, the only viable way to get out of jail is by making a non-refundable payment to a bondsman. This amounts to punishment, a fine, without proof of guilt. As someone who has paid bail money to get a cousin out of jail in Houston, I will tell you that it feels very much like pretrial punishment. The same troubled cousin was later arrested in Austin where judges have implemented a risk-based system, and he was released on a PR bond within a few hours. This use of PR bonds, based on a validated risk assessment, is what the bail bill would implement. The vast majority of people arrested are low-level, low-risk people who should be promptly released on PR bonds upon a finding that they are safe to be released. Rather than pay for a bail bond, they can use their money to pay for an attorney so the county doesn’t have to appoint one at taxpayer expense.

[…]

Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . Houston officials defend the indefensible. Litigants have challenged the money bail system in Harris County, the state’s largest and deeply intransigent jurisdiction. The trial started today, March 6th. The litigation shake-up, combined with the election of reform-minded officials, has already brought some progress. Remarkably, the District Attorney Kim Ogg, following the lead of the Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, recently filed an amicus brief siding with the plaintiffs who are suing the county’s misdemeanor judges (see attached brief). So far, the county refuses to budge from its stance supporting the use of money bail, even though the system has been shown to be arbitrary, wasteful, cruel, and dangerous. The county’s lawyers went so far as to make the ludicrous statement that some people are in jail because they prefer to be there!

Holding tight to the Bail Schedule. To deflect the criticisms, Harris County officials have agreed to do everything short of getting rid of the bail schedule. Last month, they touted the implementation of the Arnold Foundation risk assessment instrument, which would be important if the judges were actually planning to make decisions based on risk assessments rather than simply following bail schedules. They have no plans to do away with money bail, and that is why the county has been unable to settle the lawsuit.

Here are other “baby steps” that Harris County has made, while desperately clinging to the money bail system. After years of feet-dragging, county officials have finally agreed to provide people with public defenders at bail hearings as part of a pilot project. (I will never understand why a “pilot project” is necessary. By what measure will they evaluate whether it is a good idea to give people access to a fair defense at bail hearings? Keep in mind that prosecutors have participated at these hearings for many years. That’s right—the county has held one-sided hearings with a prosecutor and magistrate, but no one to speak for the jailed person!)

To its credit, the county has started several programs to reduce the number of people in jail: the District Attorney’s policy to“legalize” of small amounts of pot, a “reintegration court” to get minor offenders out of the jail quickly, and very modest efforts to get the seriously mentally ill out of the jail and into treatment facilities. All of these programs are welcome and long-overdue, but they are not bail reform.

And that is what this lawsuit is about, for Harris County. For the state of Texas, that action is in the Legislature, and you should click over to Grits to learn more. I’ll be keeping an eye on the trial.