Harris County’s 23 felony judges are no longer being sued over uneven bail practices that plaintiffs say discriminate against poor defendants. The civil rights lawsuit against the county and its reform-minded sheriff will move forward without them.
The federal judge presiding over Russell v. Harris County ruled Wednesday that once the bulk of the state district judges withdraw an appeal of one of her earlier rulings, they will be automatically removed as defendants in the case.
Lawyers for poor defendants say the mechanics of who is listed as a party will not prevent them from pursuing their goal of full adversarial bail hearings. The judges were not part of the original lawsuit, but were added at Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s request. Their removal was precipitated by an appellate court ruling in a similar challenge to the bail system in Dallas County, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit found the judges were cloaked by immunity and should therefore be excluded from the Dallas lawsuit.
The 2019 Harris County lawsuit, from lawyers at Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C., and pro bono counsel at Susman Godfrey, contends the bail system discriminates against people who can’t afford sometimes arbitrarily high pretrial release rates. The same team of lawyers brought the misdemeanor bail challenge that ended in a seven-year consent decree requiring that the majority of people arrested be released on general order bonds.
The vast majority of inmates at the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial on felony charges.
And the notion of tinkering with the felony bail process has stirred up deep emotions among law enforcement and Gov. Greg Abbott, who issued an executive order — many say it was prompted by the bail reformers in Harris County — prohibiting releases of inmates during the pandemic who had prior convictions or current allegations involving violent crime.
Rosenthal’s virtual courtroom for much of the past year has offered a rare gathering for all the key players in Harris County’s judicial system along with representatives from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to weigh the reality at the jail amid the pandemic and what it might take to tackle bail hearings for inmates.