Lawyers, county bond suit question if evidence was withheld

HARRIS COUNTY – Most of Harris County’s misdemeanor court judges were in the crowd in federal judge Lee Rosenthal’s packed courtroom Tuesday, at her request. 

They heard lawyers -- who successfully argued to overturn the county’s bail system last spring -- ask for documents to determine if any of the criminal court-at-law judges withheld evidence.

Last April, Rosenthal granted an injunction that remade the county’s bail system.
She found it to be unconstitutional after hearing that too many misdemeanor defendants were kept locked up for weeks or months because they couldn't afford to post bond. She ordered that those defendants must be released within 24 hours even if they couldn't afford bail. 

In many cases, those bonds are set by hearing officers in county magistrate courts. Last December, three hearing officers were sanctioned by the state commission on judicial conduct for not allowing unsecured bonds for defendants who requested them -- allegedly at the instruction of county judges.

That contradicted testimony given by the judges last spring that the hearing officers have wide discretion in determining bond types and amounts.

On Tuesday, the lawyers who filed the lawsuit said they want all of the evidence seen by the commissioners, along with any communications between the county judges and hearing officers.

County attorneys argued that the plaintiffs already have those records, which they say show any instructions on bonds to the hearing officers came from felony court judges, not judges who sit on the misdemeanor courts who were the focus of \Rosenthal’s order. 

“We feel like the county and judges and hearing officers answered all the questions previously. That being said, we have nothing to hide. We’re willing to produce whatever needs to be produced,” Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney, said afterward.                                           

Rosenthal gave the county 30 days to provide anything that’s missing. County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he welcomes the transparency. 

“What you have right now is a lot of 'he said, she said,' because each side is trying to win the lawsuit and reality is the county controls the data and there’s not enough transparency,” Ellis said. 

And Mike Fields,  county criminal court at law #14 judge, said he trusts Rosenthal to sort out the disagreement. 

“I think the judge was doing what was appropriate under her authority and we should respect that. Most of all, we should respect the authority of a judge,” Fields said. 

Rosenthal said she didn't ask the misdemeanor judges to be in court as a rebuke, but rather to show how serious she is about the issue. 

Rosenthal’s injunction restructuring the county bond system is being challenged by county attorneys in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The Houston Police Officers Union has been outspoken in its criticism of her ruling, contending it has turned the courts into a revolving door for repeat offenders.