After a Travis County district court judge attempted to block Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order on the release of violent suspects, late Saturday night the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency stay which allows for the enforcement of the governor’s orders for now.
Governor Abbott issued GA-13 on March 29 in response to plans by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and other local leaders and criminal court judges to release criminal suspects from jails due to coronavirus concerns.
Invoking his emergency authority under disaster declarations, in his order the governor suspended portions of state criminal code and prohibited release on personal bonds those previously convicted or currently arrested for crimes that involve physical violence or the threat of physical violence.
Last week 16 Harris County judges overseeing criminal misdemeanor courts joined with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, and several defense attorney associations to file a lawsuit, not in Harris County, but in the 459th District Court of Travis County.
The Harris County judges, supported by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, argued that the governor’s order interfered with their ability to set bonds and conflicted with terms of a lawsuit settlement the county approved last year regarding misdemeanor bonds.
Travis County Judge Lora Livingston granted the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order blocking the governor late Friday night, prompting Attorney General Ken Paxton and Solicitor General Kyle D. Hawkins, to file on behalf of the state a writ of mandamus, or request for immediate consideration before the Texas Supreme Court.
The state’s filing with the Supreme Court of Texas argues that plaintiffs do not have standing and that the Travis County judge does not have proper jurisdiction.
“The district court should have dismissed this suit for lack of jurisdiction because the suit involves the wrong plaintiffs suing the wrong defendants in the wrong court.”
Included in the documents filed by the attorney general on Saturday are numerous detailed examples of suspects already released by judges.
In one case, an arrestee had been witnessed placing a victim “in a chokehold,” but after being charged with Assault Family Violence Strangulation, the suspect was released on personal bond over the prosecutor’s objections.
Another example describes the release of a DWI suspect arrested in Humble who had numerous prior convictions including making a terroristic threat and two assaults of a family member. The suspect faced charges of Felon in Possession of a Weapon and felony DWI, but was released on personal bond.
Other examples include judges setting free on personal bond a suspect who threatened a complainant with a box cutter, and another who used a broken beer bottle to stab a woman and allegedly told arresting officers, “I should have f***ing slit her f***ing throat while I had the chance.”
Even when the state moved for reconsideration on the release of the latter suspect, the presiding judge, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, denied the motion and allowed the arrestee to remain free on personal bond.
The state asserts that the governor’s executive order is designed to prevent such dangerous individuals from obtaining unsecured release on personal bonds, along with broad-scale automatic releases on personal bonds, but also says, “Governor Abbott preserved the discretion of judges to make individualized determinations and allow releases for health or medical reasons.”
The Texas Supreme Court has given plaintiffs until 5 p.m. Monday, April 13 to respond.
In addition to the lawsuit before the state Supreme Court, plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit, Russell v Harris County, have requested a federal judge to issue temporary restraining orders that would suspend the governor’s executive order and also release as many as 4,000 suspects detained at the Harris County jail.
Elected state legislators and law enforcement officials such as State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo have vocally opposed plans for the release of violent suspects.
Among 9 state legislators filing an amicus brief with the federal court, Rep. Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) noted that inmates slated for release were not necessarily being tested for coronavirus and may further spread the virus in the community.
Calling release plans “reckless, dangerous, and unprecedented,” Rep. Swanson told The Texan, “I will continue to stand with our law enforcement community in opposition to this terrible policy.”
Thus far, the federal judge, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, has declined to act. Should she grant the plaintiffs’ request, the Texas Attorney General is expected to immediately appeal to the 5th Circuit Court which has already upheld the governor’s executive order regarding a temporary ban on abortions.
Harris County judges filing suit in Travis County include Alex Salgado, Ronnisha Bowman, Erica Hughes, Shannon Baldwin, David M. Fleisher, Kelley Andrews, Andrew A. Wright, Franklin Bynum, Toria J. Finch, Lee Harper Wilson, Sedrick T. Walker, II, Genesis E. Draper, Raul Rodriguez, David L. Singer, Tonya Jones, and Darrell Jordan.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.