Criminal Justice

Harris County Judges, Defense Lawyers Sue Governor Over Jail Release Order

All 16 Harris County misdemeanor judges sued alongside criminal defense attorneys and civil rights groups, arguing Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting the release of people from local jails was unconstitutional.

The Harris County Criminal Justice Center is located in downtown Houston.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, along with defense lawyers and civil rights groups, have sued Gov. Greg Abbott over a recent order limiting the release of people from jails across the state.

Abbott issued the order on March 29, blocking the release of people accused of violent offenses, who could not pay bail. The order also bans the release of anyone who was convicted of a violent felony in the past.

But anyone who can pay bail can still be released, prompting the suit, which argues that the order creates a “wealth-based system” of release.

“At a time when public health experts agree that limiting the population in jails is critical to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19, this order ties local officials' hands in trying to mitigate the impact of the pandemic for all Texans and prevent loss of life,” read a statement from Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “Under this order, those unable to afford bail are required to ride out a pandemic in the dangerous setting of a jail, while wealthier people are able to buy their way out."

The suit also names Attorney General Ken Paxton as a defendant. Abbott and Paxton did not immediately return requests for comment.

Click Here To Read The Lawsuit

The plaintiffs in the suit — which include all 16 Harris County misdemeanor judges, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, Capital Area Private Defender Service, and NAACP Texas — say they’re afraid an outbreak in the jails would create a danger not just to the people being jailed, but to the people who work in the jail and the entire community. An outbreak would also put a strain on hospital resources, the suit argues.

At least three people jailed in Harris County have tested positive for COVID-19, and 18 employees with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office have tested positive for the disease, including some who work in the jails.

Others have publicly called the order unconstitutional, including Houston-area State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat, who said Abbott would need to call a special session of the Texas legislature in order to pass the measure.

"The ability to suspend laws based on the Texas state constitution is solely within the purview of the legislature," Wu said. "There is no authority giving Governor Abbott the ability to suspend laws. Secondly, the laws he's suspending are the United States constitution. I know we're in a crisis, but you don't get to suspend the United States constitution. Period."

The complaint also accuses the governor of illegally limiting the ability of judges to use their discretion in choosing who to release, and that it creates a burden on defense attorneys.

“As judges we simply want to follow the law,” said Harris County Judge Darrell Jordan, one of the plaintiffs. “(The governor’s) order has muddied the water. Hopefully with the petition filed today, we will soon have clarity.”

Additional reporting by Jen Rice.

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Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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