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.
The county had been in the process of reforming its bail policy when the lawsuit hit in 2016, but lawyers for the indigent defendants argued the improvements didn’t go far enough to protect the pretrial rights of people presumed innocent. The lawsuit also divided county officials and the members of Commissioners Court, with the majority opting to finance a roughly $6 million defense including lawyers from a top-dollar appellate firm in Washington, D.C.
The sheriff, district attorney and one county commissioner, all Democrats, sided with the indigent defendants, pressing the county to quickly settle the suit and cut legal expenses. Two county court at law judges, a Democrat and a Republican, broke ranks with their colleagues and asked the county to settle.
Yet both sides framed the opinion Friday as a win.
Commissioner Steve Radack called the ruling “a victory for the state of Texas’ criminal justice system and a victory for the Harris County Attorney’s Office.” He said despite its pending appeal, the county offered to settle weeks ago based on the terms set out in the initial ruling of circuit court, but nothing came of it.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who attended much of the injunction hearing and has been a strong advocate for the indigent defendants who brought the case, said his takeaway was also that it is time for the county to settle, although he sees that as a victory for the litigants.
“Harris County still has no valid defense for its indefensible, unfair and unsafe bail system that left poor low-risk misdemeanor defendants to languish behind bars simply because they could not afford bail — nothing about this ruling changes that,” Ellis said. “It is unconscionable that this case continues to drag on and that Harris County has spent over $6 million in taxpayer dollars that could have been invested in reforming our bail system to fully protect both our constitutional rights and public safety.”
The 2016 lawsuit was brought by Maranda ODonnell, a young mother held in jail for two days after she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail on a charge of driving with a suspended license. Lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, in Washington, D.C., the Texas Fair Defense Project and free counsel from the Susman Godfrey law firm in Houston expanded the lawsuit to a civil rights class action on behalf of all people in ODonnell’s situation.
Rosenthal found that county bail hearings did not take place within 24 hours of arrest and judges were not making meaningful assessments of whether people could pay the amounts set at bail hearings. She ruled the outcomes for those who cannot afford to post bond are significantly worse than for those who can.
The appeals court found, as it had previously, the 24-hour timeline for releasing qualified misdemeanor defendants imposed too heavy of a burden on county officials. Instead, the court said those arrested are entitled to a hearing within 48 hours.
The court ruled that poor arrestees in Harris County were held in jail whereas similarly situated wealthy arrestees were not, solely based on the fact that one group could not afford to pay a secured bond.
The appeals judges repeated their earlier findings that the trial court abused its discretion with an injunction that was overly broad. They instructed Rosenthal to narrowly tailor her new injunction to remedy the specific problem identified in her finding.
The appellate judges also amended their ruling to include the sheriff as a defendant in the case.
The ruling said it will be up to Rosenthal to figure out the details of the new injunction order. Rosenthal asked the parties to prepare a joint proposal and to outline areas where their suggestions differ.
Gabrielle Banks covers federal court for the Houston Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter and send her tips at email@example.com.