On April 8, 2020, sixteen Harris County judges, along with several public interest groups and lawyers’ associations, had filed suit against the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton regarding executive order GA-13.
Issued in late March, GA-13 suspends portions of the state criminal code and prohibits the release of violent suspects based on coronavirus concerns.
The judges argued that GA-13 is unconstitutional and exceeds the governor’s statutory emergency powers and that it would interfere with their judicial authority to make individualized bail decisions.
They also claimed that the executive order would conflict with terms of a federal consent decree approved for Harris County last year that established criteria for misdemeanor bonds.
The plaintiffs further alleged that the orders were leading to confusion in the courts, and that non-compliant judges had been threatened with prosecution.
On April 10, Judge Lora Livingstone of the 459th District Court of Travis County granted a temporary restraining order halting enforcement of GA-13, but after the attorney general appealed, the Supreme Court issued a stay of the TRO while the higher court considered the case.
The Texas attorney general asserted that plaintiffs did not have standing since they could not allege any “injury” in fact. They also said that the trial court lacked the necessary subject-matter jurisdiction and had abused its discretion by issuing a TRO.
The state also provided the higher court with multiple examples of violent suspects released by judges who ordered lenient bonds and release conditions due to fears of suspects contracting coronavirus while detained in jail.
In Thursday’s ruling, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the governor’s executive order along with implied threats to prosecute judges raised “grave separation-of-powers concerns,” but also that there were “well-established principles of judicial immunity” that protected judges from prosecution.
In disputing plaintiffs’ concerns over threats of prosecution, the court asserted that neither the governor nor the attorney general could bring charges against the judges without the participation of a district attorney and that no such threats from a district attorney had been alleged.
Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the state Supreme Court noted that there are rigorous criteria for determining standing in lawsuits that question the constitutionality of another branch of government’s actions, but that the Harris County judges did not meet the criteria since they could not demonstrate “personal, legally cognizable injury required for standing.”
Therefore, the Supreme Court ordered Judge Livingstone to withdraw her temporary restraining order, effectively allowing the governor’s executive order to remain in place.
Harris County remains a central focus in an ongoing battle with far-left criminal justice reformers who desire to end bail and release requirements for pretrial felony suspects even in violent criminal activity.
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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.