Harris County misdemeanor judges' appeal dismissed in ongoing bail bond lawsuit

UPDATE: 11 a.m. Jan. 14

The Harris County criminal court at law judges elected in November and sworn in Jan. 1 immediately requested dismissal of their predecessors’ appeal in a lawsuit about the fairness of county bail bond practices, according to court documents.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal Jan. 7, according to court documents.

The judges are named as defendants in a case that began in 2016 when three individuals charged with misdemeanors filed a suit alleging the county violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution by unfairly jailing those who cannot afford to pay cash bail. The suit also names the county and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, said Houston attorney Allan Van Fleet, who is representing the judges pro bono. The names of the defendants were automatically changed from the judges previously occupying the positions to the current slate of judges, Van Fleet said.

In February 2018, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal’s April 2017 ruling in the case the county’s practices were unfair, as well as Rosenthal’s injunction that misdemeanor defendants unable to afford bail would receive a hearing within 48 hours and be released.

Fourteen of the judges filed an appeal challenging Rosenthal’s injunction last year, and the appeals court issued a stay of that injunction pending results of the appeal, Van Fleet said in a phone interview.

Now that the appeal has been dismissed, the county will proceed with working out an improved method for its bail bond practices, he said.

“The judges are working with the sheriff’s office, with the district attorney’s office, and with the new county Commissioners [Court] to come up with … a new bonding system that is safe, efficient and equal for everybody in Harris County,” Van Fleet said.

A hearing before Rosenthal is planned Feb. 1, but Van Fleet said he hopes a plan is in place before then.

“We hope to close in on a local rule on how bond procedures work … in place before Feb. 1, and then we can work on a comprehensive settlement that I would expect to be done by March,” he said.

The office of the county attorney has issued a statement regarding the settlement, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said Jan. 14.

"The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable," the statement reads. "As we have presented to the appellate courts, this is a case about judicial discretion. We are confident that we will be able to reach a settlement that maximizes the number of misdemeanor detainees who are eligible for prompt release from jail without secured bail and that also provides due regard for the rights of victims and protection of the community while preserving the independence of the judiciary."

Soard said the parties are working toward a settlement.
By Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of that paper in March 2017 and editor of The Woodlands edition in January 2019.

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