By John Council – May 21, 2018 at 02:25 PM
Three Harris County hearing officers have sued the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in an attempt to overturn their discipline for denying personal recognizance bonds to misdemeanor defendants, contending that the agency overstepped its authority by interpreting law in meting out punishment.
Eric Hagstette, Joseph Licata III and Jill Wallace are Harris County criminal law hearing officers who assist elected state district judges with initial criminal court hearings that advise criminal defendants of their rights, set money bail and determine whether the accused are eligible for release on a personal bond.
All three of the hearing officers were issued public admonitions by the Judicial Conduct Commission in January after it found that they failed to comply with the law in strictly following directives from state district judges to refrain from issuing personal bonds to defendants.
The rare disciplinary action against the hearing officers followed a landmark April 2017 ruling from U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, who held Harris County’s bail system unconstitutional because it violated the rights of indigent misdemeanor defendant by keeping them jailed only because they couldn’t afford bail.
The commission noted that it gave weight to the hearing officers’ arguments that they feared for their jobs if they didn’t obey orders from state district judges to deny personal bonds to defendants. Nevertheless, the commission determined the hearing officers had violated their constitutional and statutory obligations to consider all legally available bonds when they denied personal recognizance bonds to defendants.
In a recent petition filed in a Harris County state district court, the hearing officers argue that the commission exceeded its mandate in issuing the disciplinary actions based on its own interpretation of the law, rather than on well–settled law.
“All courts to have considered this question have agreed: The commission is not permitted to interpret the law and then find a violation. Yet that is precisely what the commission has done here,” the hearing officers’ petition alleges. “It has been nearly thirty years since the commission’s authority has been examined in Texas; this case presents an important and rare opportunity to reaffirm that the commission may not interpret Texas law and to ensure that the Commission is not allowed to exceed its mandate.”
Mike Stafford, a partner in the Houston office Husch Blackwell and a former elected Harris County attorney, represents the hearing officers in the case. He did not return a call for comment.
Eric Vinson, executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, declined to comment about the case because the agency had not yet been served with a petition.
Houston, TX – The fallout from Federal Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order in the Harris County bail case, ODonnell v. Harris County, et al., continues. Despite the Fifth Circuit having held that Judge Rosenthal’s order was “overbroad” and must be modified or rescinded, Judge Rosenthal has for months refused to change the order, allowing the Plaintiffs one more hail mary at the Fifth Circuit to try to give the judge the power – through what would be a legal backdoor – to order the Sheriff to continue to release defendants on “unsecured sheriff’s bonds.” In court filings late last week, the Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judges told a panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that enough is simply enough. In their motion, the Judges are requesting “the court to stay the District Court’s invalidated preliminary injunction,” informing the panel that Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order has created a “law enforcement and public safety crisis.” Said the Judges: “Roughly half of all unsecured release bonds issued pursuant to the preliminary injunction have been forfeited because the arrestee failed to appear for his or her court date. Literally thousands of criminal defendants released pursuant to the District Court’s order have evaded their day in court, and justice, by failing to appear.” The Judges pulled no punches when describing to the panel why they feel they are suffering “grievous irreparable harm”: “The District Court’s order is wreaking havoc upon Harris County’s ability to operate a functioning criminal justice system. There is good reason why secured money bail has been an integral part of the American criminal justice system since the Founding: secured money bail helps ensure appearance at trial. Since the preliminary injunction went into effect, a staggering 49.3 percent of all unsecured personal bonds issued in obedience to the preliminary injunction–an average of nearly 20 per day–have been forfeited because the arrestee failed to appear in court. By comparison, only 10 percent of secured money bonds have been forfeited for this reason. Accused criminals cannot be brought to justice or deterred from committing future crimes when a federal court order neuters state courts’ ability to compel those suspects to answer the charges against them and, if convicted, to serve their sentences.”; Not exactly the rosy picture bail reformers predicted would happen, and certainly not something they can continue to blame on natural disasters or other unrelated phenomena. It is important to keep in mind that when surety bonds are forfeited, bail agents are 100% financially responsible and will cure the forfeiture by returning those defendants to court – or pay the entire amount of the forfeiture. The outcome of Judge Rosenthal’s order is even worse than it appears on its face. As we reported last week, the Arnold Foundation, who is the Harris County vendor paying in part for the lawsuits against Harris County, which has cost the county in excess of $7 million in legal expenses, is also the proprietor of the Public Safety Risk Assessment tool. Relying on the Arnold Foundation instead of secured bail is what the Arnold Foundation wants, and yet public officials in Houston continue to allow the Arnold Foundation to engage in its social re–engineering. That should come as no surprise–if they didn’t, we are sure the Arnold Foundation would find more ways to sue Harris County, costing taxpayers more millions – just so the conscience of the Enron–enriched founders of the Foundation can be properly soothed as they continue their country–club lifestyle. The failure of Judge Rosenthal’s order of free releases, without regard to public safety, has reached critical mass with the latest statistics reported. There can be absolutely no doubt that when criminals get a free pass at the pretrial phase of justice, they will thumb their nose at the system. As we have previously reported, many charged that have been set free without consequence go on to graduate to more severe criminal activity because they know the system will simply let them get away with it. In fact, failing to appear in court in Harris County, Texas would actually be a good legal strategy because there is really no way that the police will ever re–arrest thousands and thousands of fugitives. From here, we fully expect to hear another round of excuses from the Plaintiffs’ Attorneys. We are certain they are: (1) attempting to come up with a litany of other excuses to try to explain the failure they assured the judge would never happen; or, (2) they are hoping hurricane season comes early so they have something else to pin the failures on. Jeff Clayton Executive Director American Bail Coalition